The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
Having made the necessary explanations to account for her sudden appearance, Unorna found herself installed in two rooms of modest dimensions, and very simply though comfortably furnished. It was quite a common thing for ladies to seek retreat and quiet in the convent during two or three weeks of the year, and there was plenty of available space at the disposal of those who wished to do so. Such visits were indeed most commonly made during the lenten season, and on the day when Unorna sought refuge among the nuns it chanced that there was but one other stranger within the walls. She was glad to find that this was the case. Her peculiar position would have made it hard for her to bear with equanimity the quiet observation of a number of woman, most of whom would probably have been to some extent acquainted with the story of her life, and some of whom would certainly have wished out of curiosity to enter into nearer acquaintance with her while within the convent, while not intending to prolong their intercourse with her any further. It could not be expected, indeed, that in a city like Prague such a woman as Unorna could escape notice, and the fact that little or nothing was known of her true history had left a very wide field for the imaginations of those who chose to invent one for her. The common story, and the one which on the whole was nearest to the truth, told that she was the daughter of a noble of eastern Bohemia who had died soon after her birth, the last of his family, having converted his ancestral possessions into money for Unorna's benefit, in order to destroy all trace of her relationship to him. The secret must, of course, have been confided to some one, but it had been kept faithfully, and Unorna herself was no wiser than those who mused themselves with fruitless speculations regarding her origin. If from the first, from the moment when, as a young girl, she left the convent to enter into possession of her fortune she had chosen to assert some right to a footing in the most exclusive aristocracy in the world, it is not impossible that the protection of the Abbess might have helped her to obtain it. The secret of her birth would, however, have rendered a marriage with a man of that class all but impossible, and would have entirely excluded her from the only other position considered dignified for a well-born woman of fortune, unmarried and wholly without living relations or connections--that of a lady-canoness on the Crown foundation. Moreover, her wild bringing- up, and the singular natural gifts she possessed, and which she could not resist the impulse to exercise, had in a few months placed her in a position from which no escape was possible so long as she continued to live in Prague; and against those few--chiefly men--who for her beauty's sake, or out of curiosity, would gladly have made her acquaintance, she raised an impassable barrier of pride and reserve. Nor was her reputation altogether an evil one. She lived in a strange fashion, it is true, but the very fact of her extreme seclusion had kept her name free from stain. If people spoke of her as the Witch, it was more from habit and half in jest than in earnest. In strong contradiction to the cruelty which she could exercise ruthlessly when roused to anger, was her well-known kindness to the poor, and her charities to institutions founded for their benefit were in reality considerable, and were said to be boundless. These explanations seem necessary in order to account for the readiness with which she turned to the convent when she was in danger, and for the facilities which were then at once offered her for a stay long or short, as she should please to make it. Some of the more suspicious nuns looked grave when they heard that she was under their roof; others, again, had been attached to her during the time she had formerly spent among them; and there were not lacking those who, disapproving of her presence, held their peace, in the anticipation that the rich and eccentric lady would on departing present a gift of value to their order.
The rooms which were kept at the disposal of ladies desiring to make a religious retreat for a short time were situated on the first floor of one wing of the convent overlooking a garden which was not within the cloistered precincts, but which was cultivated for the convenience of the nuns, who themselves never entered it. The windows on this side were not latticed, and the ladies who occupied the apartments were at liberty to look out upon the small square of land, their view of the street beyond being cut off however by a wall in which there was one iron gate for the convenience of the gardeners, who were thus not obliged to pass through the main entrance of the convent in order to reach their work. Within the rooms all opened out upon a broad vaulted corridor, lighted in the day-time by a huge arched window looking upon an inner court, and at night by a single lamp suspended in the middle of the passage by a strong iron chain. The pavement of this passage was of broad stones, once smooth and even but now worn and made irregular by long use. The rooms for the guests were carpeted with sober colours and warmed by high stoves built up of glazed white tiles. The furniture, as has been said, was simple, but afforded all that was strictly necessary for ordinary comfort, each apartment consisting of a bedroom and sitting-room, small in lateral dimensions but relatively very high. The walls were thick and not easily penetrated by any sounds from without, and, as in many religious houses, the entrances from the corridor were all closed by double doors, the outer one of strong oak with a lock and a solid bolt, the inner one of lighter material, but thickly padded to exclude sound as well as currents of cold air. Each sitting-room contained a table, a sofa, three or four chairs, a small book-shelf, and a praying-stool provided with a hard and well-worn cushion for the knees. Over this a brown wooden crucifix was hung upon the gray wall.
In the majority of convents it is not usual, nor even permissible, for ladies in retreat to descend to the nuns' refectory. When there are many guests they are usually served by lay sisters in a hall set apart for the purpose; when there are few, their simple meals are brought to them in their rooms. Moreover they of course put on no religious robe, though they dress themselves in black. In the church, or chapel, as the case may be, they do not take places within the latticed choir with the sisters, but either sit in the body of the building, or occupy a side chapel reserved for their use, or else perform their devotions kneeling at high windows above the choir, which communicate within with rooms accessible from the convent. It is usual for them to attend Mass, Vespers, the Benediction and Complines, but when there are midnight services they are not expected to be present.
Unorna was familiar with convent life and was aware that the Benediction was over, and that the hour for the evening meal was approaching. A fire had been lighted in her sitting-room, but the air was still very cold and she sat wrapped in her furs as when she had arrived, leaning back in a corner of the sofa, her head inclined forward, and one white hand resting on the green baize cloth which covered the table.
She was very tired, and the absolute stillness was refreshing and restoring after the long-drawn-out emotions of the stormy day. Never, in her short and passionate life, had so many events been crowded into the space of a few hours. Since the morning she had felt almost everything that her wild, high-strung nature was capable of feeling-- love, triumph, failure, humiliation--anger, hate, despair, and danger of sudden death. She was amazed when, looking back, she remembered that at noon on that day her life and all its interests had been stationary at the point familiar to her during a whole month, the point that still lay within the boundaries of hope's kingdom, the point at which the man she loved had wounded her by speaking of brotherly affection and sisterly regard. She could almost believe, when she thought of it all, that some one had done to her as she had done to others, that she had been cast into a state of sleep, and had been forced against her will to live through the storms of years in the lethargy of an hour. And yet, despite all, her memory was distinct, her faculties were awake, her intellect had lost none of its clearness, even in the last and worst hour of all. She could recall each look on the Wanderer's face, each tone of his cold speech, each intonation of her own passionate outpourings. Her strong memory had retained all, and there was not the slightest break in the continuity of her recollections. But there was little comfort to be derived from the certainty that she had not been dreaming, and that everything had really taken place precisely as she remembered it. She would have given all she possessed, which was much, to return to the hour of noon on that same day.
In so far as a very unruly nature can understand itself, Unorna understood the springs of the actions, she regretted and confessed that in all likelihood she would do again as she had done at each successive stage. Indeed, since the last great outbreak of her heart, she realised more than ever the great proportions which her love had of late assumed; and she saw that she was indeed ready, as she had said, to dare everything and risk everything for the sake of obtaining the very least show of passion in return. It was quite clear to her, since she had failed so totally, that she should have had patience, that she ought to have accepted gratefully the man's offer of brotherly devotion, and trusted in time to bring about a further and less platonic development. But she was equally sure that she could never have found the patience, and that if she had restrained herself to-day she would have given way to-morrow. She possessed all the blind indifference to consequences which is a chief characteristic of the Slav nature when dominated by passion. She had shone it in her rash readiness to face Israel Kafka at the moment of leaving her own home. If she could not have what she longed for, she cared as little what became of her as she cared for Kafka's own fate. She had but one object, one passion, one desire, and to all else her indifference was supreme. Life and death, in this world or the next, were less weighty than feathers in a scale that measures hundreds of tons. The very idea of balance was for the moment beyond her imagination. For a while indeed the pride of a woman at once young, beautiful, and accustomed to authority, had kept her firm in the determination to be loved for herself, as she believed that she deserved to be loved; and just so long as that remained, she had held her head high, confidently expecting that the mask of indifference would soon be shivered, that the eyes she adored would soften with warm light, that the hand she worshipped would tremble suddenly, as though waking to life within her own. But that pride was gone, and from its disappearance there had been but one step to the most utter degradation of soul to which a woman can descend, and from that again but one step more to a resolution almost stupid in its hardened obstinacy. But as though to show how completely she was dominated by the man whom she could not win even her last determination had yielded under the slightest pressure from his will. She had left her house beside him with the mad resolve never again to be parted from him, cost what it might, reputation, fortune, life itself. And yet ten minutes had not elapsed before she found herself alone, trusting to a mere word of his for the hope of ever seeing him again. She seemed to have no individuality left. He had spoken and she had obeyed. He had commanded and she had done his bidding. She was even more ashamed of this than of having wept, and sobbed, and dragged herself at his feet. In the first moment she had submitted, deluding herself with the idea she had expressed, that he was consigning her to a prison and that her freedom was dependent on his will. The foolish delusion vanished. She saw that she was free, when she chose, to descend the steps she had just mounted, to go out through the gate she had lately entered, and to go whithersoever she would, at the mere risk of meeting Israel Kafka. And that risk she heartily despised, being thoroughly brave by nature, and utterly indifferent to death by force of circumstance.
She comforted herself with the thought that the Wanderer would come to her, once at least, when she was pleased to send for him. She had that loyal belief inseparable from true love until violently overthrown by irrefutable evidence, and which sometimes has such power as to return even then, overthrowing the evidence of the senses themselves. Are there not men who trust women, and women who trust men, in spite of the vilest betrayals? Love is indeed often the inspirer of subjective visions, creating in the beloved object the qualities it admires and the virtues it adores, powerless to accept what it is not willing to see, dwelling in a fortress guarded by intangible, and therefore indestructible, fiction and proof against the artillery of facts. Unorna's confidence was, however, not misplaced. The man whose promise she had received had told the truth when he had said that he had never broken any promise whatsoever.
In this, at least, there was therefore comfort. On the morrow she would see him again. The moment of complete despair had passed when she had received that assurance from his lips, and as she thought of it, sitting in the absolute stillness of her room, the proportions of the storm grew less, and possible dimensions of a future hope greater --just as the seafarer when his ship lies in a flat calm of the oily harbour thinks half incredulously of the danger past, despises himself for the anxiety he felt, and vows that on the morrow he will face the waves again, though the winds blow ever so fiercely. In Unorna the master passion was as strong as ever. In a dim vision the wreck of her pride floated still in the stormy distance, but she turned her eyes away, for it was no longer a part of her. The spectre of her humiliation rose up and tried to taunt her with her shame--she almost smiled at the thought that she could still remember it. He lived, she lived, and he should yet be hers. As her physical weariness began to disappear in the absolute quiet and rest, her determination revived. Her power was not all gone yet. On the morrow she would see him again. She might still fix her eyes on his, and in an unguarded moment cast him into a deep sleep. She remembered that look on his face in the old cemetery. She had guessed rightly; it had been for the faint memory of Beatrice. But she would bring it back again, and it should be for her, for he should never wake again. Had she not done as much with the ancient scholar who for long years had lain in her home in that mysterious state, who obeyed when she commanded him to rise, and walk, to eat, to speak? Why not the Wanderer, then? To outward eyes he would be alive and awake, calm, natural, happy. And yet he would be sleeping. In that condition, at least, she could command his actions, his thoughts, and his words. How long could it be made to last? She did not know. Nature might rebel in the end and throw off the yoke of the heavily-imposed will. An interval might follow, full again of storm and passion and despair; but it would pass, and he would again fall under her influence. She had read, and Keyork Arabian had told her, of the marvels done every day by physicians of common power in the great hospitals and universities of the Empire, and elsewhere throughout Europe. None of them appeared to be men of extraordinary natural gifts. Their powers were but weakness compared with hers. Even with miserable, hysteric women they often had to try again and again before they could produce the hypnotic sleep for the first time. When they had got as far as that, indeed, they could bring their learning, their science, and their experience to bear--and they could make foolish experiments, familiar to Unorna from her childhood as the sights and sounds of her daily life. Few, if any of them, had even the power necessary to hypnotise an ordinarily strong man in health. She, on the contrary, had never failed in that, and at the first trial, except with Keyork Arabian, a man of whom she said in her heart, half in jest and half superstitiously, that he was not a man at all, but a devil or a monster over whom earthly influences had no control.
All her energy returned. The colour came back to her face, her eyes sparkled, her strong white hands contracted and opened, and closed again, as though she would grasp something. The room, too, had become warmer and she had forgotten to lay aside her furs. She longed for more air and, rising, walked across the room. It occurred to her that the great corridor would be deserted and as quiet as her own apartment, and she went out and began to pace the stone flags, her head high, looking straight before her.
She wished that she had him there now, and she was angry at the thought that she had not seen earlier how easily it could all be done. However strong he might be, having twice been under her influence before he could not escape it again. In those moments when they had stood together before the great dark buildings of the Clementinum, it might all have been accomplished; and now, she must wait until the morning. But her mind was determined. It mattered not how, it mattered not in what state, he should be hers. No one would know what she had done. It was nothing to her that he would be wholly unconscious of his past life--had she not already made him forget the most important part of it? He would still be himself, and yet he would love her, and speak lovingly to her, and act as she would have him act. Everything could be done, and she would risk nothing, for she would marry him and make him her lawful husband, and they would spend their lives together, in peace, in the house wherein she had so abased herself before him, foolishly believing that, as a mere woman, she could win him.
She paced the corridor, passing and repassing beneath the light of the single lamp that hung in the middle, walking quickly, with a sensation of pleasure in the movement and in the cold draught that fanned her cheek.
Then she heard footsteps distinct from the echo of her own and she stood still. Two women were coming towards her through the gloom. She waited near her own door, supposing that they would pass her. As they came near, she saw that the one was a nun, habited in the plain gray robe and black and white head-dress of the order. The other was a lady dressed, like herself, in black. The light burned so badly that as the two stopped and stood for a moment conversing together, Unorna could not clearly distinguish their faces. Then the lady entered one of the rooms, the third or the fourth from Unorna's, and the nun remained standing outside, apparently hesitating whether to turn to the right or to the left, or asking herself in which direction her occupations called her. Unorna made a movement, and at the sound of her foot the nun came towards her.
"Sister Paul!" Unorna exclaimed, recognising her as her face came under the glare of the lamp, and holding out her hands.
"Unorna!" cried the nun, with an intonation of surprise and pleasure. "I did not know that you were here. What brings you back to us?"
"A caprice, Sister Paul--nothing but a caprice. I shall perhaps be gone to-morrow."
"I am sorry," answered the sister. "One night is but a short retreat from the world." She shook her head rather sadly.
"Much may happen in a night," replied Unorna with a smile. "You used to tell me that the soul knew nothing of time. Have you changed your mind? Come into my room and let us talk. I have not forgotten your hours. You can have nothing to do for the moment, unless it is supper- time."
"We have just finished," said Sister Paul, entering readily enough. "The other lady who is staying here insisted upon supping in the guests' refectory--out of curiosity perhaps, poor thing--and I met her on the stairs as she was coming up."
"Are she and I the only ones here?" Unorna asked carelessly.
"Yes. There is no one else, and she only came this morning. You see it is still the carnival season in the world. It is in Lent that the great ladies come to us, and then we have often not a room free."
The nun smiled sadly, shaking her head again, in a way that seemed habitual with her.
"After all," she added, as Unorna said nothing, "it is better that they should come then, rather than not at all, though I often think it would be better still if they spent carnival in the convent and Lent in the world."
"The world you speak of would be a gloomy place if you had the ordering of it, Sister Paul!" observed Unorna with a little laugh.
"Ah, well! I daresay it would seem so to you. I know little enough of the world as you understand it, save for what our guests tell me--and, indeed, I am glad that I do not know more."
"You know almost as much as I do."
The sister looked long and earnestly into Unorna's face as though searching for something. She was a thin, pale woman over forty years of age. Not a wrinkle marked her waxen skin, and her hair was entirely concealed under the smooth head-dress, but her age was in her eyes.
"What is your life, Unorna?" she asked suddenly. "We hear strange tales of it sometimes, though we know also that you do great works of charity. But we hear strange tales and strange words."
"Do you?" Unorna suppressed a smile of scorn. "What do people say of me? I never asked."
"Strange things, strange things," repeated the nun with a shake of the head.
"What are they? Tell me one of them, as an instance."
"I should fear to offend you--indeed I am sure I should, though we were good friends once."
"And are still. The more reason why you should tell me what is said. Of course I am alone in the world, and people will always tell vile tales of women who have no one to protect them."
"No, no," Sister Paul hastened to assure her. "As a woman, no word has reached us that touches your fair name. On the contrary, I have heard worldly women say much more that is good of you in that respect than they will say of each other. But there are other things, Unorna--other things which fill me with fear for you. They call you by a name that makes me shudder when I hear it."
"A name?" repeated Unorna in surprise and with considerable curiosity.
"A name--a word--what you will--no, I cannot tell you, and besides, it must be untrue."
Unorna was silent for a moment and then understood. She laughed aloud with perfect unconcern.
"I know!" she cried. "How foolish of me! They call me the Witch--of course."
Sister Paul's face grew very grave, and she immediately crossed herself devoutly, looking askance at Unorna as she did so. But Unorna only laughed again.
"Perhaps it is very foolish," said the nun, "but I cannot bear to hear such a thing said of you."
"It is not said in earnest. Do you know why they call me the Witch? It is very simple. It is because I can make people sleep--people who are suffering or mad or in great sorrow, and then they rest. That is all my magic."
"You can put people to sleep? Anybody?" Sister Paul opened her faded eyes very wide. "But that is not natural," she added in a perplexed tone. "And what is not natural cannot be right."
"And is all right that is natural?" asked Unorna thoughtfully.
"It is not natural," repeated the other. "How do you do it? Do you use strange words and herbs and incantations?"
Unorna laughed again, but the nun seemed shocked by her levity and she forced herself to be grave.
"No, indeed!" she answered. "I look into their eyes and tell them to sleep--and they do. Poor Sister Paul! You are behind the age in the dear old convent here. The thing is done in half of the great hospitals of Europe every day, and men and women are cured in that way of diseases that paralyse them in body as well as in mind. Men study to learn how it is done; it is as common to-day, as a means of healing, as the medicines you know by name and taste. It is called hypnotism."
Again the sister crossed herself.
"I have heard the word, I think," she said, as though she thought there might be something diabolical in it. "And do you heal the sick in this way by means of this--thing?"
"Sometimes," Unorna answered. "There is an old man, for instance, whom I have kept alive for many years by making him sleep--a great deal." Unorna smiled a little.
"But you have no words with it? Nothing?"
"Nothing. It is my will. That is all."
"But if it is of good, and not of the Evil One, there should be a prayer with it. Could you not say a prayer with it, Unorna?"
"I daresay I could," replied the other, trying not to laugh. "But that would be doing two things at once; my will would be weakened."
"It cannot be of good," said the nun. "It is not natural, and it is not true that the prayer can distract the will from the performance of a good deed." She shook her head more energetically than usual. "And it is not good either that you should be called a witch, you who have lived here amongst us."
"It is not my fault!" exclaimed Unorna, somewhat annoyed by her persistence. "And besides, Sister Paul, even if the devil is in it, it would be right all the same."
The nun held up her hands in holy horror, and her jaw dropped.
"My child! My child! How can you say such things to me!"
"It is very true," Unorna answered, quietly smiling at her amazement. "If people who are ill are made well, is it not a real good, even if the Evil One does it? Is it not good to make him do good, if one can, even against his will?"
"No, no!" cried Sister Paul, in great distress. "Do not talk like that --let us not talk of it at all! Whatever it is, it is bad, and I do not understand it, and I am sure that none of us here could, no matter how well you explained it. But if you will do it, Unorna, my dear child, then say a prayer each time, against temptation and the devil's works."
With that the good nun crossed herself a third time, and unconsciously, from force of habit, began to tell her beads with one hand, mechanically smoothing her broad, starched collar with the other. Unorna was silent for a few minutes, plucking at the sable lining of the cloak which lay beside her upon the sofa where she had dropped it.
"Let us talk of other things," she said at last. "Talk of the other lady who is here. Who is she? What brings her into retreat at this time of year?"
"Poor thing--yes, she is very unhappy," answered Sister Paul. "It is a sad story, so far as I have heard it. Her father is just dead, and she is alone in the world. The Abbess received a letter yesterday from the Cardinal Archbishop, requesting that we would receive her, and this morning she came. His eminence knew her father, it appears. She is only to be here for a short time, I believe, until her relations come to take her home to her own country. Her father was taken ill in a country place near the city, which he had hired for the shooting season, and the poor girl was left all alone out there. The Cardinal thought she would be safer and perhaps less unhappy with us while she is waiting."
"Of course," said Unorna, with a faint interest. "How old is she, poor child?"
"She is not a child, she must be five and twenty years old, though perhaps her sorrow makes her look older than she is."
"And what is her name?"
"Beatrice. I cannot remember the name of the family."