The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
"What is it?" asked the nun, noticing Unorna's sudden movement.
"Nothing; the name of Beatrice is familiar to me, that is all. It suggested something."
Though Sister Paul was as unworldly as five and twenty years of cloistered life can make a woman who is naturally simple in mind and devout in thought, she possessed that faculty of quick observation which is learned as readily, and exercised perhaps as constantly, in the midst of a small community, where each member is in some measure dependent upon all the rest for the daily pittance of ideas, as in wider spheres of life.
"You may have seen this lady, or you may have heard of her," she said.
"I would like to see her," Unorna answered thoughtfully.
She was thinking of all the possibilities in the case. She remembered the clearness and precision of the Wanderer's first impression, when he first told her how he had seen Beatrice in the Teyn Kirche, and she reflected that the name was a very uncommon one. The Beatrice of his story too had a father and no other relation, and was supposed to be travelling with him. By the uncertain light in the corridor Unorna had not been able to distinguish the lady's features, but the impression she had received had been that she was dark, as Beatrice was. There was no reason in the nature of things why this should not be the woman whom the Wanderer loved. It was natural enough that, being left alone in a strange city at such a moment, she should have sought refuge in a convent, and this being admitted it followed that she would naturally have been advised to retire to the one in which Unorna found herself, it being the one in which ladies were most frequently received as guests. Unorna could hardly trust herself to speak. She was conscious that Sister Paul was watching her, and she turned her face from the lamp.
"There can be no difficulty about your seeing her, or talking with her, if you wish it," said the nun. "She told me that she would be at Compline at nine o'clock. If you will be there yourself you can see her come in, and watch her when she goes out. Do you think you have ever seen her?"
"No," answered Unorna in an odd tone. "I am sure that I have not."
Sister Paul concluded from Unorna's manner that she must have reason to believe that the guest was identical with some one of whom she had heard very often. Her manner was abstracted and she seemed ill at ease. But that might be the result of fatigue.
"Are you not hungry?" asked the nun. "You have had nothing since you came, I am sure."
"No--yes--it is true," answered Unorna. "I had forgotten. It would be very kind of you to send me something."
Sister Paul rose with alacrity, to Unorna's great relief.
"I will see to it," she said, holding out her hand. "We shall meet in the morning. Good-night."
"Good-night, dear Sister Paul. Will you say a prayer for me?" She added the question suddenly, by an impulse of which she was hardly conscious.
"Indeed I will--with all my heart, my dear child," answered the nun looking earnestly into her face. "You are not happy in your life," she added, with a slow, sad movement of her head.
"No--I am not happy. But I will be."
"I fear not," said Sister Paul, almost under her breath, as she went out softly.
Unorna was left alone. She could not sit still in her extreme anxiety. It was agonising to think that the woman she longed to see was so near her, but that she could not, upon any reasonable pretext, go and knock at her door and see her and speak to her. She felt also a terrible doubt as to whether she would recognise her, at first sight, as the same woman whose shadow had passed between herself and the Wanderer on that eventful day a month ago. The shadow had been veiled, but she had a prescient consciousness of the features beneath the veil. Nevertheless, she might be mistaken. It would be necessary to seek her acquaintance by some excuse and endeavour to draw from her some portion of her story, enough to confirm Unorna's suspicions, or to prove conclusively that they were unfounded. To do this, Unorna herself needed all her strength and coolness, and she was glad when a lay sister entered the room bringing her evening meal.
There were moments when Unorna, in favourable circumstances, was able to sink into the so-called state of second sight, by an act of volition, and she wished now that she could close her eyes and see the face of the woman who was only separated from her by two or three walls. But that was not possible in this case. To be successful she would have needed some sort of guiding thread, or she must have already known the person she wished to see. She could not command that inexplicable condition as she could dispose of her other powers, at all times and in almost all moods. She felt that if she were at present capable of falling into the trance state at all, her mind would wander uncontrolled in some other direction. There was nothing to be done but to have patience.
The lay sister went out. Unorna ate mechanically what had been set before her and waited. She felt that a crisis perhaps more terrible than that through which she had lately passed was at hand, if the stranger should prove to be indeed the Beatrice whom the Wanderer loved. Her brain was in a whirl when she thought of being brought face to face with the woman who had been before her, and every cruel and ruthless instinct of her nature rose and took shape in plans for her rival's destruction.
She opened her door, careless of the draught of frozen air that rushed in from the corridor. She wished to hear the lady's footstep when she left her room to go to the church, and she sat down and remained motionless, fearing lest her own footfall should prevent the sound from reaching her. The heavy-toned bells began to ring, far off in the night.
At last it came, the opening of a door, the slight noise made by a light tread upon the pavement. She rose quietly and went out, following in the same direction. She could see nothing but a dark shadow moving before her towards the opposite end of the passage, farther and farther from the hanging lamp. Unorna could hear her own heart beating as she followed, first to the right, then to the left. There was another light at this point. The lady had noticed that some one was coming behind her and turned her head to look back. The delicate, dark profile stood out clearly. Unorna held her breath, walking swiftly forward. But in a moment the lady went on, and entered the chapel-like room from which a great balconied window looked down into the church above the choir. As Unorna went in, she saw her kneeling upon one of the stools, her hands folded, her head inclined, her eyes closed, a black veil loosely thrown over her still blacker hair and falling down upon her shoulder without hiding her face.
Unorna sank upon her knees, compressing her lips to restrain the incoherent exclamation that almost broke from them in spite of her, clasping her hands desperately, so that the faint blue veins stood out upon the marble surface.
Below, hundreds of candles blazed upon the altar in the choir and sent their full yellow radiance up to the faces of the two women, as they knelt there almost side by side, both young, both beautiful, but utterly unlike. In a single glance Unorna had understood that it was true. An arm's length separated her from the rival whose very existence made her own happiness an utter impossibility. With unchanging, unwilling gaze she examined every detail of that beauty which the Wanderer had so loved, that even when forgotten there was no sight in his eyes for other women.
It was indeed such a face as a man would find it hard to forget. Unorna, seeing the reflection of it in the Wanderer's mind, had fancied it otherwise, though she could not but recognise the reality from the impression she had received. She had imagined it more ethereal, more faint, more sexless, more angelic, as she had seen it in her thoughts. Divine it was, but womanly beyond Unorna's own. Dark, delicately aquiline, tall and noble, the purity it expressed was of earth and not of heaven. It was not transparent, for there was life in every feature; it was sad indeed almost beyond human sadness, but it was sad with the mortal sorrows of this world, not with the unfathomable melancholy of the suffering saint. The lips were human, womanly, pure and tender, but not formed for speech of prayer alone. The drooping lids, not drawn, but darkened with faint, uneven shadows by the flow of many tears, were slowly lifted now and again, disclosing a vision of black eyes not meant for endless weeping, nor made so deep and warm only to strain their sight towards heaven above, forgetting earth below. Unorna knew that those same eyes could gleam, and flash, and blaze, with love and hate and anger, that under the rich, pale skin, the blood could rise and ebb with the changing tide of the heart, that the warm lips could part with passion and, moving, form words of love. She saw pride in the wide sensitive nostrils, strength in the even brow, and queenly dignity in the perfect poise of the head upon the slender throat. And the clasped hands were womanly, too, neither full and white and heavy like those of a marble statue, as Unorna's were, nor thin and over-sensitive like those of holy women in old pictures, but real and living, delicate in outline, but not without nervous strength, hands that might linger in another's, not wholly passive, but all responsive to the thrill of a loving touch.
It was very hard to bear. A better woman than Unorna might have felt something evil and cruel and hating in her heart, at the sight of so much beauty in one who held her place, in the queen of the kingdom where she longed to reign. Unorna's cheek grew very pale, and her unlike eyes were fierce and dangerous. It was well for her that she could not speak to Beatrice then, for she wore no mask, and the dark beauty would have seen the danger of death in the face of the fair, and would have turned and defended herself in time.
But the sweet singing of the nuns came softly up from below, echoing to the groined roof, rising and falling, high and low; and the full radiance of the many waxen tapers shone steadily from the great altar, gilding and warming statue and cornice and ancient moulding, and casting deep shadows into all the places that it could not reach. And still the two women knelt in their high balcony, the one rapt in fervent prayer, the other wondering that the presence of such hatred as hers should have no power to kill, and all the time making a supreme effort to compose her own features into the expression of friendly sympathy and interest which she knew she would need so soon as the singing ceased and it was time to leave the church again.
The psalms were finished. There was a pause, and then the words of the ancient hymn floated up to Unorna's ears, familiar in years gone by. Almost unconsciously she herself, by force of old habit, joined in the first verse. Then, suddenly, she stopped, not realising, indeed, the horrible gulf that lay between the words that passed her lips, and the thoughts that were at work in her heart, but silenced by the near sound of a voice less rich and full, but far more exquisite and tender than her own. Beatrice was singing, too, with joined hands, and parted lips, and upturned face.
"Let dreams be far, and phantasms of the night--bind Thou our Foe," sang Beatrice in long, sweet notes.
Unorna heard no more. The light dazzled her, and the blood beat in her heart. It seemed as though no prayer that was ever prayed could be offered up more directly against herself, and the voice that sang it, though not loud, had the rare power of carrying every syllable distinctly in its magic tones, even to a great distance. As she knelt, it was as if Beatrice had been even nearer, and had breathed the words into her very ear. Afraid to look round, lest her face should betray her emotion, Unorna glanced down at the kneeling nuns. She started. Sister Paul, alone of them all, was looking up, her faded eyes fixed on Unorna's with a look that implored and yet despaired, her clasped hands a little raised from the low desk before her, most evidently offering up the words with the whole fervent intention of her pure soul, as an intercession for Unorna's sins.
For one moment the strong, cruel heart almost wavered, not through fear, but under the nameless impression that sometimes takes hold of men and women. The divine voice beside her seemed to dominate the hundred voices below; the nun's despairing look chilled for one instant all her love and all her hatred, so that she longed to be alone, away from it all, and for ever. But the hymn ended, the voice was silent, and Sister Paul's glance turned again towards the altar. The moment was passed and Unorna was again what she had been before.
Then followed the canticle, the voice of the prioress in the versicles after that, and the voices of the nuns, no longer singing, as they made the responses; the Creed, a few more versicles and responses, the short, final prayers, and all was over. From the church below came up the soft sound that many women make when they move silently together. The nuns were passing out in their appointed order.
Beatrice remained kneeling a few moments longer, crossed herself and then rose. At the same moment Unorna was on her feet. The necessity for immediate action at all costs restored the calm to her face and the tactful skill to her actions. She reached the door first, and then, half turning her head, stood aside, as though to give Beatrice precedence in passing. Beatrice glanced at her face for the first time, and then by a courteous movement of the head signified that Unorna should go out first. Unorna appeared to hesitate, Beatrice to protest. Both women smiled a little, and Unorna, with a gesture of submission, passed through the doorway. She had managed it so well that it was almost impossible to avoid speaking as they threaded the long corridors together. Unorna allowed a moment to pass, as though to let her companion understand the slight awkwardness of the situation, and then addressed her in a tone of quiet and natural civility.
"We seem to be the only ladies in retreat," she said.
"Yes," Beatrice answered. Even in that one syllable something of the quality of her thrilling voice vibrated for an instant. They walked a few steps farther in silence.
"I am not exactly in retreat," she said presently, either because she felt that it would be almost rude to say nothing, or because she wished her position to be clearly understood. "I am waiting here for some one who is to come for me."
"It is a very quiet place to rest in," said Unorna. "I am fond of it."
"You often come here, perhaps."
"Not now," answered Unorna. "But I was here for a long time when I was very young."
By a common instinct, as they fell into conversation, they began to walk more slowly, side by side.
"Indeed," said Beatrice, with a slight increase of interest. "Then you were brought up here by the nuns?"
"Not exactly. It was a sort of refuge for me when I was almost a child. I was left here alone, until I was thought old enough to take care of myself."
There was a little bitterness in her tone, intentional, but masterly in its truth to nature.
"Left by your parents?" Beatrice asked. The question seemed almost inevitable.
"I had none. I never knew a father or a mother." Unorna's voice grew sad with each syllable.
They had entered the great corridor in which their apartments were situated, and were approaching Beatrice's door. They walked more and more slowly, in silence during the last few moments, after Unorna had spoken. Unorna sighed. The passing breath traveling on the air of the lonely place seemed both to invite and to offer sympathy.
"My father died last week," Beatrice said in a very low tone, that was not quite steady. "I am quite alone--here and in the world."
She laid her hand upon the latch and her deep black eyes rested upon Unorna's, as though almost, but not quite, conveying an invitation, hungry for human comfort, yet too proud to ask it.
"I am very lonely, too," said Unorna. "May I sit with you for a while?"
She had but just time to make the bold stroke that was necessary. In another moment she knew that Beatrice would have disappeared within. Her heart beat violently until the answer came. She had been successful.
"Will you, indeed?" Beatrice exclaimed. "I am poor company, but I shall be very glad if you will come in."
She opened her door, and Unorna entered. The apartment was almost exactly like her own in size and shape and furniture, but it already had the air of being inhabited. There were books upon the table, and a square jewel-case, and an old silver frame containing a large photograph of a stern, dark man in middle age--Beatrice's father, as Unorna at once understood. Cloaks and furs lay in some confusion upon the chairs, a large box stood with the lid raised, against the wall, displaying a quantity of lace, among which lay silks and ribbons of soft colours.
"I only came this morning," Beatrice said, as though to apologise for the disorder.
Unorna sank down in a corner of the sofa, shading her eyes from the bright lamp with her hand. She could not help looking at Beatrice, but she felt that she must not let her scrutiny be too apparent, nor her conversation too eager. Beatrice was proud and strong, and could doubtless be very cold and forbidding when she chose.
"And do you expect to be here long?" Unorna asked, as Beatrice established herself at the other end of the sofa.
"I cannot tell," was the answer. "I may be here but a few days, or I may have to stay a month.
"I lived here for years," said Unorna thoughtfully. "I suppose it would be impossible now--I should die of apathy and inanition." She laughed in a subdued way, as though respecting Beatrice's mourning. "But I was young then," she added, suddenly withdrawing her hand from her eyes, so that the full light of the lamp fell upon her.
She chose to show that she, too, was beautiful, and she knew that Beatrice had as yet hardly seen her face as they passed through the gloomy corridors. It was an instinct of vanity, and yet, for her purpose, it was the right one. The effect was sudden and unexpected, and Beatrice looked at her almost fixedly, in undisguised admiration.
"Young then!" she exclaimed. "You are young now!"
"Less young than I was then," Unorna answered with a little sigh, followed instantly by a smile.
"I am five and twenty," said Beatrice, woman enough to try and force a confession from her new acquaintance.
"Are you? I would not have thought it--we are nearly of an age--quite, perhaps, for I am not yet twenty-six. But then, it is not the years--" She stopped suddenly.
Beatrice wondered whether Unorna were married or not. Considering the age she admitted and her extreme beauty it seemed probable that she must be. It occurred to her that the acquaintance had been made without any presentation, and that neither knew the other's name.
"Since I am a little the younger," she said, "I should tell you who I am."
Unorna made a slight movement. She was on the point of saying that she knew already--and too well.
"I am Beatrice Varanger."
"I am Unorna." She could not help a sort of cold defiance that sounded in her tone as she pronounced the only name she could call hers.
"Unorna?" Beatrice repeated, courteously enough, but with an air of surprise.
"Yes--that is all. It seems strange to you? They called me so because I was born in February, in the month we call Unor. Indeed it is strange, and so is my story--though it would have little interest for you."
"Forgive me, you are wrong, It would interest me immensely--if you would tell me a little of it; but I am such a stranger to you----"
"I do not feel as though you are that," Unorna answered with a very gentle smile.
"You are very kind to say so," said Beatrice quietly.
Unorna was perfectly well aware that it must seem strange, to say the least of it, that she should tell Beatrice the wild story of her life, when they had as yet exchanged barely a hundred words. But she cared little what Beatrice thought, provided that she could interest her. She had a distinct intention in making the time slip by unnoticed, until it should be late.
She related her history, so far as it was known to herself, simply and graphically, substantially as it has been already set forth, but with an abundance of anecdote and comment which enhanced the interest and at the same time extended its limits, interspersing her monologues with remarks which called for an answer and which served as tests of her companion's attention. She hinted but lightly at her possession of unusual power over animals, and spoke not at all of the influence she could exert upon people. Beatrice listened eagerly. She could have told, on her part, that for years her own life had been dull and empty, and that it was long since she had talked with any one who had so roused her interest.
At last Unorna was silent. She had reached the period of her life which had begun a month before that time, and at that point her story ended.
"Then you are not married?" Beatrice's tone expressed an interrogation and a certain surprise.
"No," said Unorna, "I am not married. And you, if I may ask?"
Beatrice started visibly. It had not occurred to her that the question might seem a natural one for Unorna to ask, although she had said that she was alone in the world. Unorna might have supposed her to have lost her husband. But Unorna could see that it was not surprise alone that had startled her. The question, as she knew it must, had roused a deep and painful train of thought.
"No," said Beatrice, in an altered voice. "I am not married. I shall never marry."
A short silence followed, during which she turned her face away.
"I have pained you," said Unorna with profound sympathy and regret. "Forgive me! How could I be so tactless!"
"How could you know?" Beatrice asked simply, not attempting to deny the suggestion.
But Unorna was suffering too. She had allowed herself to imagine that in the long years which had passed Beatrice might perhaps have forgotten. It had even crossed her mind that she might indeed be married. But in the few words, and in the tremor that accompanied them, as well as in the increased pallor of Beatrice's face, she detected a love not less deep and constant and unforgotten than the Wanderer's own.
"Forgive me," Unorna repeated. "I might have guessed. I have loved too."
She knew that here, at least, she could not feign and she could not control her voice, but with supreme judgment of the effect she allowed herself to be carried beyond all reserve. In the one short sentence her whole passion expressed itself, genuine, deep, strong, ruthless. She let the words come as they would, and Beatrice was startled by the passionate cry that burst from the heart, so wholly unrestrained.
For a long time neither spoke again, and neither looked at the other. To all appearances Beatrice was the first to regain her self- possession. And then, all at once the words came to her lips which could be restrained no longer. For years she had kept silence, for there had been no one to whom she could speak. For years she had sought him, as best she could, as he had sought her, fruitlessly and at last hopelessly. And she had known that her father was seeking him also, everywhere, that he might drag her to the ends of the earth at the mere suspicion of the Wanderer's presence in the same country. It had amounted to a madness with him of the kind not seldom seen. Beatrice might marry whom she pleased, but not the one man she loved. Day by day and year by year their two strong wills had been silently opposed, and neither the one nor the other had ever been unconscious of the struggle, nor had either yielded a hair's-breadth. But Beatrice had been at her father's mercy, for he could take her whither he would, and in that she could not resist him. Never in that time had she lost faith in the devotion of the man she sought, and at last it was only in the belief that he was dead that she could discover an explanation of his failure to find her. Still she would not change, and still, through the years, she loved more and more truly, and passionately, and unchangingly.
The feeling that she was in the presence of a passion as great, as unhappy, and as masterful as her own, unloosed her tongue. Such things happen in this strange world. Men and women of deep and strong feedings, outwardly cold, reserved, taciturn and proud, have been known, once in their lives, to pour out the secrets of their hearts to a stranger or a mere acquaintance, as they could never have done to a friend.
Beatrice seemed scarcely conscious of what she was saying, or of Unorna's presence. The words, long kept back and sternly restrained, fell with a strange strength from her lips, and there was not one of them from first to last that did not sheathe itself like a sharp knife in Unorna's heart. The enormous jealousy of Beatrice which had been growing within her beside her love during the last month was reaching the climax of its overwhelming magnitude. She hardly knew when Beatrice ceased speaking, for the words were still all ringing in her ears, and clashing madly in her own breast, and prompting her fierce nature to do some violent deed. But Beatrice looked for no sympathy and did not see Unorna's face. She had forgotten Unorna herself at the last, as she sat staring at the opposite wall.
Then she rose quickly, and taking something from the jewel-box, thrust it into Unorna's hands.
"I cannot tell why I have told you--but I have. You shall see him too. What does it matter? We have both loved, we are both unhappy--we shall never meet again."
"What is it?" Unorna tried to ask, holding the closed case in her hands. She knew what was within it well enough, and her self-command was forsaking her. It was almost more than she could bear. It was as though Beatrice were wreaking vengeance on her, instead of her destroying her rival as she had meant to do, sooner or later.
Beatrice took the thing from her, opened it, gazed at it a moment, and put it again into Unorna's hands. "It was like him," she said, watching her companion as though to see what effect the portrait would produce. Then she shrank back.
Unorna was looking at her. Her face was livid and unnaturally drawn, and the extraordinary contrast in the colour of her two eyes was horribly apparent. The one seemed to freeze, the other to be on fire. The strongest and worst passions that can play upon the human soul were all expressed with awful force in the distorted mask, and not a trace of the magnificent beauty so lately there was visible. Beatrice shrank back in horror.
"You know him!" she cried, half guessing at the truth.
"I know him--and I love him," said Unorna slowly and fiercely, her eyes fixed on her enemy, and gradually leaning towards her so as to bring her face nearer and nearer to Beatrice.
The dark woman tried to rise, and could not. There was worse than anger, or hatred, or the intent to kill, in those dreadful eyes. There was a fascination from which no living thing could escape. She tried to scream, to shut out the vision, to raise her hand as a screen before it. Nearer and nearer it came, and she could feel the warm breath of it upon her cheek. Then her brain reeled, her limbs relaxed, and her head fell back against the wall.
"I know him, and I love him," were the last words Beatrice heard.