The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
The Wanderer knew that the case was urgent and the danger great. There was no mistaking the tone of Israel Kafka's voice nor the look in his face. Nor did the savage resolution seem altogether unnatural in a man of the Moravian's breeding. The Wanderer had no time and but little inclination to blame himself for the part he had played in disclosing to the principal actor the nature of the scene which had taken place in the cemetery, and the immediate consequences of that disclosure, though wholly unexpected, did not seem utterly illogical. Israel Kafka's nature was eastern, violently passionate and, at the same time, long-suffering in certain directions as only the fatalist can be. He could have loved for a lifetime faithfully, without requital; he would have suffered in patience Unorna's anger, scorn, pity or caprice; he had long before now resigned his free will into the keeping of a passion which was degrading as it enslaved all his thoughts and actions, but which had something noble in it, inasmuch as it fitted him for the most heroic self-sacrifice.
Unorna's act had brought the several seemingly contradictory elements of his character to bear upon one point. He had realised in the same moment that it was impossible for her to love him; that her changing treatment of him was not the result of caprice but of a fixed plan of her own, in the execution of which she would spare him neither falsehood nor insult; that to love such a woman was the lowest degradation; that he could nevertheless not destroy that love; and, finally, that the only escape from his shame lay in her destruction, and that this must in all probability involve his own death also. At the same time he felt that there was something solemn in the expiation he was about to exact, something that accorded well with the fierce traditions of ancient Israel, and the deed should not be done stealthily or in the dark. Unorna must know that she was to die by his hand, and why. He had no object in concealment, for his own life was already ended by the certainty that his love was hopeless, and on the other hand, fatalist as he was, he believed that Unorna could not escape him and that no warning could save her.
The Wanderer understood most of these things as he hastened towards her house through the darkening streets. Not a carriage was to be seen, and he was obliged to traverse the distance on foot, as often happens at supreme moments, when everything might be gained by the saving of a few minutes in conveying a warning.
He saw himself in a very strange position. Half an hour had not elapsed since he had watched Unorna driving away from the cemetery and had inwardly determined that he would never, if possible, set eyes on her again. Scarcely two hours earlier, he had been speaking to her of the sincere friendship which he felt was growing up for her in his heart. Since then he had learned, almost beyond the possibility of a doubt, that she loved him, and he had learned, too, to despise her, he had left her meaning that the parting should be final, and now he was hurrying to her house to give her the warning which alone could save her from destruction. And yet, he found it impossible to detect any inconsistency in his own conduct. As he had been conscious of doing his utmost to save Israel Kafka from her, so now he knew that he was doing all he could to save Unorna from the Moravian, and he recognised the fact that no man with the commonest feelings of humanity could have done less in either case. But he was conscious, also, of a change in himself which he did not attempt to analyse. His indolent, self- satisfied apathy was gone, the strong interests of human life and death stirred him, mind and body together acquired their activity and he was at all points once more a man. He was ignorant, indeed, of what had been taken from him. The memory of Beatrice was gone, and he fancied himself one who had never loved woman. He looked back with horror and amazement upon the emptiness of his past life, wondering how such an existence as he had led, or fancied he had led, could have been possible.
But there was scant time for reflection upon the problem of his own mission in the world as he hastened towards Unorna's house. His present mission was clear enough and simple enough, though by no means easy of accomplishment. What Israel Kafka had told him was very true. Should he attempt a denunciation, he would have little chance of being believed. It would be easy enough for Kafka to bring witnesses to prove his own love for Unorna and the Wanderer's intimacy with her during the past month, and the latter's consequent interest in disposing summarily of his Moravian rival. A stranger in the land would have small hope of success against a man whose antecedents were known, whose fortune was reputed great, and who had at his back the whole gigantic strength of the Jewish interest in Prague, if he chose to invoke the assistance of his people. The matter would end in a few days in the Wanderer being driven from the country, while Israel Kafka would be left behind to work his will as might seem best in his own eyes.
There was Keyork Arabian. So far as it was possible to believe in the sincerity of any of the strange persons among whom the Wanderer found himself, it seemed certain that the sage was attached to Unorna by some bond of mutual interests which he would be loth to break. Keyork had many acquaintances and seemed to posses everywhere a certain amount of respect, whether because he was perhaps a member of some widespread, mysterious society of which the Wanderer knew nothing, or whether this importance of his was due to his personal superiority of mind and wide experience of travel, no one could say. But it seemed certain that if Unorna could be placed for the time being in a safe refuge, it would be best to apply to Keyork to insure her further protection. Meanwhile that refuge must be found and Unorna must be conveyed to it without delay.
The Wanderer was admitted without question. He found Unorna in her accustomed place. She had thrown aside her furs and was sitting in an attitude of deep thought. Her dress was black, and in the soft light of the shaded lamps she was like a dark, marble statue set in the midst of thick shrubbery in a garden. Her elbow rested on her knee, her chin upon her beautiful, heavy hand; only in her hair there was bright colour.
She knew the Wanderer's footstep, but she neither moved her body nor turned her head. She felt that she grew paler than before, and she could hear her heart beating strongly.
"I come from Israel Kafka," said the Wanderer, standing still before her.
She knew from his tone how hard his face must be, and she would not look up.
"What of him?" she asked in a voice without expression. "Is he well?"
"He bids me say to you that he has promised before Heaven to take your life, and that there is no escape from a man who is ready to lay down his own."
Unorna turned her head slowly towards him, and a very soft look stole over her strange face.
"And you have brought me his message--this warning--to save me?" she said.
"As I tried to save him from you an hour ago. But there is little time. The man is desperate, whether mad or sane, I cannot tell. Make haste. Determine where to go for safety, and I will take you there."
But Unorna did not move. She only looked at him, with an expression he could no longer misunderstand. He was cold and impassive.
"I fancy it will not be safe to hesitate long," he said. "He is in earnest."
"I do not fear Israel Kafka, and I fear death less," answered Unorna deliberately. "Why does he mean to kill me?"
"I think that in his place most every human men would feel as he does, though religion, or prudence, or fear, or all three together, might prevent them from doing what they would wish to do."
"You too? And which of the three would prevent you from murdering me?"
"None, perhaps--though pity might."
"I want no pity, least of all from you. What I have done, I have done for you, and for you only."
The Wanderer's face showed only a cold disgust. He said nothing.
"You do not seem surprised," said Unorna. "You know that I love you?"
"I know it."
A silence followed, during which Unorna returned to her former attitude, turning her eyes away and resting her chin upon her hand. The Wanderer began to grow impatient.
"I must repeat that, in my opinion, you have not much time to spare," he said. "If you are not in a place of safety in half an hour, I cannot answer for the consequences."
"No time? There is all eternity. What is eternity, or time, or life to me? I will wait for him here. Why did you tell him what I did, if you wished me to live?"
"Why--since there are to be questions--why did you exercise your cruelty upon an innocent man who loves you?"
"Why? There are reasons enough!" Unorna's voice trembled slightly. "You do not know what happened. How should you? You were asleep. You may as well know, since I may be beyond telling you an hour from now. You may as well know how I love you, and to what depths I have gone down to win your love."
"I would rather not receive your confidence," the Wanderer answered haughtily. "I came here to save your life, not to hear your confessions."
"And when you have heard, you will no longer wish to save me. If you choose to leave me here, I will wait for Israel Kafka alone. He may kill me if he pleases. I do not care. But if you stay you shall hear what I have to say."
She glanced at his face. He folded his arms and stood still. Whatever she had done, he would not leave her alone at the mercy of the desperate man whom he expected every moment to enter the room. If she would not save herself, he might nevertheless disarm Kafka and prevent the deed. As his long sleeping energy revived in him the thought of a struggle was not disagreeable.
"I loved you from the moment when I first saw you," said Unorna, trying to speak calmly. "But you loved another woman. Do you remember her? Her name was Beatrice, and she was very dark, as I am fair. You had lost her and you had sought her for years. You entered my house, thinking that she had gone in before you. Do you remember that morning? It was a month ago to-day. You told me the story."
"You have dreamed it," said the Wanderer in cold surprise. "I never loved any woman yet."
Unorna laughed bitterly.
"How perfect it all was at first!" she exclaimed. "How smooth it seemed! How easy! You slept before me, out there by the river that very afternoon. And in your sleep I bade you forget. And you forgot wholly, your love, the woman, her very name, even as Israel Kafka forgot to-day what he had suffered in the person of the martyr. You told him the story, and he believes you, because he knows me, and knows what I can do. You can believe me or not; as you will. I did it."
"You are dreaming," the Wanderer repeated, wondering whether she were not out of her mind.
"I did it. I said to myself that if I could destroy your old love, root it out from your heart and from your memory and make you as one who had never loved at all, then you would love me as you had once loved her, with your whole free soul. I said that I was beautiful--it is true, is it not? And young I am, and I loved as no woman ever loved. And I said that it was enough, and that soon you would love me, too. A month has passed away since then. You are of ice--of stone--I do not know of what you are. This morning you hurt me. I thought it was the last hurt and that I should die then--instead of to-night. Do you remember? You thought I was ill, and you went away. When you were gone I fought with myself. My dreams--yes, I had dreamed of all that can make earth Heaven, and you had waked me. You said that you would be a brother to me--you talked of friendship. The sting of it! It is no wonder that I grew faint with pain. Had you struck me in the face, I would have kissed your hand. But your friendship! Rather be dead than, loving, be held a friend! And I had dreamed of being dear to you for my own sake, of being dearest, and first, and alone beloved, since that other was gone and I had burned her memory. That pride I had still, until that moment. I fancied that it was in my power, if I would stoop so low, to make you sleep again as you had slept before, and to make you at my bidding feel all I felt. I fought with myself. I would not go down to that depth. And then I said that even that were better than your friendship, even a false semblance of love inspired by my will, preserved by my suggestion. And so I fell. You came back to me and I led you to that lonely place, and made you sleep, and then I told you what was in my heart and poured out the fire of my soul into your ears. A look came into your face--I shall not forget it. My folly was upon me, and I thought it was for me. I know the truth now. Sleeping, the old memory revived in you of her whom waking you will never remember again. But the look was there, and I bade you awake. My soul rose in my eyes. I hung upon your lips. The loving word I longed for seemed already to tremble in the air. Then came the truth. You awoke, and your face was stone, calm, smiling, indifferent, unloving. And all this Israel Kafka had seen, hiding like a thief almost beside us. He saw it all, he heard it all, my words of love, my agony of waiting, my utter humiliation, my burning shame. Was I cruel to him? He had made me suffer, and he suffered in his turn. All this you did not know. You know it now. There is nothing more to tell. Will you wait here until he comes? Will you look on, and be glad to see me die? Will you remember in the years to come with satisfaction that you saw the witch killed for her many misdeeds, and for the chief of them all --for loving you?"
The Wanderer had listened to her words, but the tale they told was beyond the power of his belief. He stood still in his place, with folded arms, debating what he should do to save her. One thing alone was clear. She loved him to distraction. Possibly, he thought, her story was but an invention to excuse her cruelty and to win his commiseration. It failed to do either at first, but yet he would not leave her to her fate.
"You shall not die if I can help it," he said simply.
"And if you save me, do you think that I will leave you?" she asked with sudden agitation, turning and half rising from her seat. "Think what you will be doing, if you save me. Think well. You say that Israel Kafka is desperate. I am worse than desperate, worse than mad with my love."
She sank back again and hid her face for a moment. He, on his part, began to see the terrible reality and strength of her passion, and silently wondered what the end would be. He, too, was human, and pity for her began at last to touch his heart.
"You shall not die, if I can save you," he said again.
She sprang to her feet very suddenly and stood before him.
"You pity me!" she cried. "What lie is that which says that there is a kinship between pity and love? Think well--beware--be warned. I have told you much, but you do not know me yet. If you save me, you save me but to love you more than I do already. Look at me. For me there is neither God, nor hell, nor pride, nor shame. There is nothing that I will not do, nothing I shall be ashamed or afraid of doing. If you save me, you save me that I may follow you as long as I live. I will never leave you. You shall never escape my presence, your whole life shall be full of me--you do not love me, and I can threaten you with nothing more intolerable than myself. Your eyes will weary of the sight of me and your ears at the sound of my voice. Do you think I have no hope? A moment ago I had none. But I see it now. Whether you will, or not, I shall be yours. You may make a prisoner of me--I shall be in your keeping then, and shall know it, and feel it, and love my prison for your sake, even if you will not let me see you. If you would escape from me, you must kill me, as Israel Kafka means to kill me now--and then, I shall die by your hand and my life will have been yours and given to you. How can you think that I have no hope! I have hope--and certainty, for I shall be near you always to the end-- always, always, always! I will cling to you--as I do now--and say, I love you, I love you--yes, and you will cast me off, but I will not go --I will clasp your feet, and say again, I love you, and you may spurn me--man, god, wanderer, devil,--whatever you are--beloved always! Tread upon me, trample on me, crush me--you cannot save yourself, you cannot kill my love!"
She had tried to take his hand and he had withdrawn his, she had fallen upon her knees, and as he tried to free himself had fallen almost to her length upon the marble floor, clinging to his very feet, so that he could make no step without doing her some hurt. He looked down, amazed and silent, and as he looked she cast one glance upward to his stern face, the bright tears streaming like falling gems from her unlike eyes, her face pale and quivering, her rich hair all loosened and falling about her.
And then, neither body, nor heart, nor soul, could bear the enormous strain that was laid upon them. A low cry broke from her lips, a stormy sob, another and another, like quick short waves breaking over the bar when the tide is low and the wind is rising suddenly.
The Wanderer was in sore straits, for the minutes were passing quickly and he remembered the last look on Kafka's face, and how he had left the Moravian standing before the weapons on the wall. And nothing had been done yet, not so much as an order given not to admit him if he came to the house. At any moment he might be upon them. And the storm showed no signs of being spent. Her wild, convulsive sobbing was painful to hear. If he tried to move, she dragged herself frantically at his feet so that he feared lest he should tread upon her hands. He pitied her now most truly, though he guessed rightly that to show his pity would be but to add fuel to the blazing flame.
Then, in the interval of a second, as she drew breath to weep afresh, he fancied that he heard sounds below as of the great door being opened and closed again. With a quick, strong movement, stooping low he put his arms about her and raised her from the floor. At his touch, her sobbing ceased for a moment, as though she had wanted only that to soothe her. In spite of him she let her head rest upon his shoulder, letting him still feel that if he did not support her weight with his arm she would fall again. In the midst of the most passionate and real outburst of despairing love there was no artifice which she would not use to be nearer to him, to extort even the semblance of a caress.
"I heard some one come in below," he said, hurriedly. "It must be he. Decide quickly what to do. Either stay or fly--you have not ten seconds for your choice."
She turned her imploring eyes to his.
"Let me stay here and end it all--"
"That you shall not!" he exclaimed, dragging her towards the end of the hall opposite to the usual entrance, and where he knew that there must be a door behind the screen of plants. His hold tightened upon her yielding waist. Her head fell back and her full lips parted in an ecstasy of delight as she felt herself hurried along in his arms, scarcely touching the floor with her feet.
"Ah--now--now! Let it come now!" she sighed.
"It must be now--or never," he said almost roughly. "If you will leave this house with me now, very well. But leave this room you shall. If I am to meet that man and stop him, I will meet him alone."
"Leave you alone? Ah no--not that----"
They had reached the exit now. At the same instant both heard some one enter at the other end and rapid footsteps on the marble pavement.
"Which is it to be?" asked the Wanderer, pale and calm. He had pushed her through before him and seemed ready to go back alone.
With violent strength she drew him to her, closed the door and slipped the strong steel bolt across below the lock. There was a dim light in the passage.
"Together, then," she said. "I shall at least be with you--a little longer."
"Is there another way out of the house?" asked the Wanderer anxiously.
"More than one. Come with me."
As they disappeared in the corridor, they heard behind them the noise of the door-lock as some one tried to force it open. Then a heavy sound as though a man's shoulder struck against the solid panel. Unorna led the way through a narrow, winding passage, illuminated here and there by small lamps with shades of soft colours, blown in Bohemian glass.
Pushing aside a curtain they came out into a small room. The Wanderer uttered an involuntary exclamation of surprise as he recognised the vestibule and saw before him the door of the great conservatory, open as Israel Kafka had left it. That the latter was still trying to pursue them through the opposite exit was clear enough, for the blows he was striking on the panel echoed loudly out into the hall. Swiftly and silently Unorna closed the entrance and locked it securely.
"He is safe for a little while," she said. "Keyork will find him there when he comes, an hour hence, and Keyork will perhaps bring him to his senses."
She had regained control of herself, to all appearances, and she spoke with perfect calm and self-possession. The Wanderer looked at her in surprise and with some suspicion. Her hair was all falling about her shoulders, but saving this sign, there was no trace of the recent storm, nor the least indication of passion. If she had been acting a part throughout before an audience, she would have seemed less indifferent when the curtain fell. The Wanderer, having little cause to trust her, found it hard to believe that she had not been counterfeiting. It seemed impossible that she should be the same woman who but a moment earlier had been dragging herself at his feet, in wild tears and wilder protestations of her love.
"If you are sufficiently rested," he said with a touch of sarcasm which he could not restrain, "I would suggest that we do not wait any longer here."
She turned and faced him, and he saw now how very white she was.
"So you think that even now I have been deceiving you? That is what you think. I see it in your face."
Before he could prevent her she had opened the door wide again and was advancing calmly into the conservatory.
"Israel Kafka!" she cried in loud clear tones. "I am here--I am waiting--come!"
The Wanderer ran forward. He caught sight in the distance of a pair of fiery eyes and of something long and thin and sharp-gleaming under the soft lamps. He knew then that all was deadly earnest. Swift as thought he caught Unorna and bore her from the hall, locking the door again and setting his broad shoulders against it, as he put her down. The daring act she had done appealed to him, in spite of himself.
"I beg your pardon," he said almost deferentially. "I misjudged you."
"It is that," she answered. "Either I will be with you or I will die, by his hand, by yours, by my own--it will matter little when it is done. You need not lean against the door. It is very strong. Your furs are hanging there, and here are mine. Let us be going."
Quietly, as though nothing unusual had happened, they descended the stairs together. The porter came forward with all due ceremony, to open the shut door. Unorna told him that if Keyork Arabian came while she was out, he was to be shown directly into the conservatory. A moment later she and her companion were standing together in the small irregular square before the Clementinum.
"Where will you go?" asked the Wanderer.
"With you," she answered, laying her hand upon his arm and looking into his face as though waiting to see what direction he would choose. "Unless you send me back to him," she added, glancing quickly at the house and making as though she would withdraw her hand once more. "If it is to be that, I will go alone."
There seemed to be no way out of the terrible dilemma, and the Wanderer stood still in deep thought. He knew that if he could but free himself from her for half an hour, he could get help from the right quarter and take Israel Kafka red-handed and armed as he was. For the man was caught as in a trap and must stay there until he was released, and there would be little doubt from his manner, when taken, that he was either mad or consciously attempting some crime. There was no longer any necessity, he thought, for Unorna to take refuge anywhere for more than an hour. In that time Israel Kafka would be in safe custody, and she could re-enter her house with nothing to fear. But he counted without Unorna's unyielding obstinacy. She threatened if he left her for a moment to go back to Israel Kafka. A few minutes earlier she had carried out her threat and the consequence had been almost fatal.
"If you are in your right mind," he said at last, beginning to walk towards the corner, "you will see that what you wish to do is utterly against reason. I will not allow you to run the risk of meeting Israel Kafka to-night, but I cannot take you with me. No--I will hold you, if you try to escape me, and I will bring you to a place of safety by force, if need be."
"And you will leave me there, and I shall never see you again. I will not go, and you will find it hard to take me anywhere in the crowded city by force. You are not Israel Kafka, with the whole Jews' quarter at your command in which to hide me."
The Wanderer was perplexed. He saw, however, that if he would yield the point and give his word to return to her, she might be induced to follow his advice.
"If I promise to come back to you, will you do what I ask?" he inquired.
"Will you promise truly?"
"I have never broken a promise yet."
"Did you promise that other woman that you would never love again, I wonder? If so, you are faithful indeed. But you have forgotten that. Will you come back to me if I let you take me where I shall be safe to-night?"
"I will come back whenever you send for me."
"If you fail, my blood is on your head."
"Yes--on my head be it."
"Very well. I will go to that house where I first stayed when I came here. Take me there quickly--no--not quickly either--let it be very long! I shall not see you until to-morrow."
A carriage was passing at a foot pace. The Wanderer stopped it, and helped Unorna to get in. The place was very near, and neither spoke, though he could feel her hand upon his arm. He made no attempt to shake her off. At the gate they both got out, and he rang a bell that echoed through vaulted passages far away in the interior.
"To-morrow," said Unorna, touching his hand.
He could see even in the dark the look of love she turned upon him.
"Good-night," he said, and in the next moment she had disappeared within.