The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
The Wanderer stood still before the door. In the freezing air, his quick-drawn breath made fantastic wreaths of mist, white and full of odd shapes as he watched the tiny clouds curling quickly into each other before the blackened oak. Then he laid his hand boldly upon the chain of the bell. He expected to hear the harsh jingling of cracked metal, but he was surprised by the silvery clearness and musical quality of the ringing tones which reached his ear. He was pleased, and unconsciously took the pleasant infusion for a favourable omen. The heavy door swung back almost immediately, and he was confronted by a tall porter in dark green cloth and gold lacings, whose imposing appearance was made still more striking by the magnificent fair beard which flowed down almost to his waist. The man lifted his heavy cocked hat and held it low at his side as he drew back to let the visitor enter. The latter had not expected to be admitted thus without question, and paused under the bright light which illuminated the arched entrance, intending to make some inquiry of the porter. But the latter seemed to expect nothing of the sort. He carefully closed the door, and then, bearing his hat in one hand and his gold-headed staff in the other, he proceeded gravely to the other end of the vaulted porch, opened a great glazed door and held it back for the visitor to pass.
The Wanderer recognized that the farther he was allowed to penetrate unhindered into the interior of the house, the nearer he should be to the object of his search. He did not know where he was, nor what he might find. For all that he knew, he might be in a club, in a great banking-house, or in some semi-public institution of the nature of a library, an academy or a conservatory of music. There are many such establishments in Prague, though he was not acquainted with any in which the internal arrangements so closely resembled those of a luxurious private residence. But there was no time for hesitation, and he ascended the broad staircase with a firm step, glancing at the rich tapestries which covered the walls, at the polished surface of the marble steps on either side of the heavy carpet, and at the elaborate and beautiful iron-work of the hand-rail. As he mounted higher, he heard the quick rapping of an electric signal above him, and he understood that the porter had announced his coming. Reaching the landing, he was met by a servant in black, as correct at all points as the porter himself, and who bowed low as he held back the thick curtain which hung before the entrance. Without a word the man followed the visitor into a high room of irregular shape, which served as a vestibule, and stood waiting to receive the guest's furs, should it please him to lay them aside. To pause now, and to enter into an explanation with a servant, would have been to reject an opportunity which might never return. In such an establishment, he was sure of finding himself before long in the presence of some more or less intelligent person of his own class, of whom he could make such inquiries as might enlighten him, and to whom he could present such excuses for his intrusion as might seem most fitting in so difficult a case. He let his sables fall into the hands of the servant and followed the latter along a short passage.
The man introduced him into a spacious hall and closed the door, leaving him to his own reflections. The place was very wide and high and without windows, but the broad daylight descended abundantly from above through the glazed roof and illuminated every corner. He would have taken the room for a conservatory, for it contained a forest of tropical trees and plants, and whole gardens of rare southern flowers. Tall letonias, date palms, mimosas and rubber trees of many varieties stretched their fantastic spikes and heavy leaves half-way up to the crystal ceiling; giant ferns swept the polished marble floor with their soft embroideries and dark green laces; Indian creepers, full of bright blossoms, made screens and curtains of their intertwining foliage; orchids of every hue and of every exotic species bloomed in thick banks along the walls. Flowers less rare, violets and lilies of the valley, closely set and luxuriant, grew in beds edged with moss around the roots of the larger plants and in many open spaces. The air was very soft and warm, moist and full of heavy odours as the still atmosphere of an island in southern seas, and the silence was broken only by the light plash of softly-falling water.
Having advanced a few steps from the door, the Wanderer stood still and waited, supposing that the owner of the dwelling would be made aware of a visitor's presence and would soon appear. But no one came. Then a gentle voice spoke from amidst the verdure, apparently from no great distance.
"I am here," it said.
He moved forward amidst the ferns and the tall plants, until he found himself on the farther side of a thick network of creepers. Then he paused, for he was in the presence of a woman, of her who dwelt among the flowers. She was sitting before him, motionless and upright in a high, carved chair, and so placed that the pointed leaves of the palm which rose above her cast sharp, star-shaped shadows over the broad folds of her white dress. One hand, as white, as cold, as heavily perfect as the sculpture of a Praxiteles or a Phidias, rested with drooping fingers on the arm of the chair. The other pressed the pages of a great book which lay open on the lady's knee. Her face was turned toward the visitor, and her eyes examined his face; calmly and with no surprise in them, but not without a look of interest. Their expression was at once so unusual, so disquieting, and yet so inexplicably attractive as to fascinate the Wanderer's gaze. He did not remember that he had ever seen a pair of eyes of distinctly different colours, the one of a clear, cold gray, the other of a deep, warm brown, so dark as to seem almost black, and he would not have believed that nature could so far transgress the canons of her own art and yet preserve the appearance of beauty. For the lady was beautiful, from the diadem of her red gold hair to the proud curve of her fresh young lips; from her broad, pale forehead, prominent and boldly modelled at the angles of the brows, to the strong mouldings of the well-balanced chin, which gave evidence of strength and resolution wherewith to carry out the promise of the high aquiline features and of the wide and sensitive nostrils.
"Madame," said the Wanderer, bending his head courteously and advancing another step, "I can neither frame excuses for having entered your house unbidden, nor hope to obtain indulgence for my intrusion, unless you are willing in the first place to hear my short story. May I expect so much kindness?"
He paused, and the lady looked at him fixedly and curiously. Without taking her eyes from his face, and without speaking, she closed the book she had held on her knee, and laid it beside her upon a low table. The Wanderer did not avoid her gaze, for he had nothing to conceal, nor any sense of timidity. He was an intruder upon the privacy of one whom he did not know, but he was ready to explain his presence and to make such amends as courtesy required, if he had given offence.
The heavy odours of the flowers filled his nostrils with an unknown, luxurious delight, as he stood there, gazing into the lady's eyes; he fancied that a gentle breath of perfumed air was blowing softly over his hair and face out of the motionless palms, and the faint plashing of the hidden fountain was like an exquisite melody in his ears. It was good to be in such a place, to look on such a woman, to breathe such odours, and to hear such tuneful music. A dreamlike, half- mysterious satisfaction of the senses dulled the keen self-knowledge of body and soul for one short moment. In the stormy play of his troubled life there was a brief interlude of peace. He tasted the fruit of the lotus, his lips were moistened in the sweet waters of forgetfulness.
The lady spoke at last, and the spell left him, not broken, as by a sudden shock, but losing its strong power by quick degrees until it was wholly gone.
"I will answer your question by another," said the lady. "Let your reply be the plain truth. It will be better so."
"Ask what you will. I have nothing to conceal."
"Do you know who and what I am? Do you come here out of curiosity, in the vain hope of knowing me, having heard of me from others?"
"Assuredly not." A faint flush rose in the man's pale and noble face. "You have my word," he said, in the tone of one who is sure of being believed, "that I have never, to my knowledge, heard of your existence, that I am ignorant even of your name--forgive my ignorance --and that I entered this house, not knowing whose it might be, seeking and following after one for whom I have searched the world, one dearly loved, long lost, long sought."
"It is enough. Be seated. I am Unorna."
"Unorna?" repeated the Wanderer, with an unconscious question in his voice, as though the name recalled some half-forgotten association.
"Unorna--yes. I have another name," she added, with a shade of bitterness, "but it is hardly mine. Tell me your story. You loved--you lost--you seek--so much I know. What else?"
The Wanderer sighed.
"You have told in those few words the story of my life--the unfinished story. A wanderer I was born, a wanderer I am, a wanderer I must ever be, until at last I find her whom I seek. I knew her in a strange land, far from my birthplace, in a city where I was known but to a few, and I loved her. She loved me, too, and that against her father's will. He would not have his daughter wed with one not of her race; for he himself had taken a wife among strangers, and while she was yet alive he had repented of what he had done. But I would have overcome his reasons and his arguments--she and I could have overcome them together, for he did not hate me, he bore me no ill-will. We were almost friends when I last took his hand. Then the hour of destiny came upon me. The air of that city was treacherous and deadly. I had left her with her father, and my heart was full of many things, and of words both spoken and unuttered. I lingered upon an ancient bridge that spanned the river, and the sun went down. Then the evil fever of the south laid hold upon me and poisoned the blood in my veins, and stole the consciousness from my understanding. Weeks passed away, and memory returned, with the strength to speak. I learned that she I loved and her father were gone, and none knew whither. I rose and left the accursed city, being at that time scarce able to stand upright upon my feet. Finding no trace of those I sought, I journeyed to their own country, for I knew where her father held his lands. I had been ill many weeks and much time had passed, from the day on which I had left her, until I was able to move from my bed. When I reached the gates of her home, I was told that all had been lately sold, and that others now dwelt within the walls. I inquired of those new owners of the land, but neither they or any of all those whom I questioned could tell me whither I should direct my search. The father was a strange man, loving travel and change and movement, restless and unsatisfied with the world, rich and free to make his own caprice his guide through life; reticent he was, moreover, and thoughtful, not given to speaking out his intentions. Those who administered his affairs in his absence were honourable men, bound by his especial injunction not to reveal his ever-varying plans. Many times, in my ceaseless search, I met persons who had lately seen him and his daughter and spoken with them. I was ever on their track, from hemisphere to hemisphere, from continent to continent, from country to country, from city to city, often believing myself close upon them, often learning suddenly that an ocean lay between them and me. Was he eluding me, purposely, resolutely, or was he unconscious of my desperate pursuit, being served by chance alone and by his own restless temper? I do not know. At last, some one told me that she was dead, speaking thoughtlessly, not knowing that I loved her. He who told me had heard the news from another, who had received it on hearsay from a third. None knew in what place her spirit had parted; none knew by what manner of sickness she had died. Since then, I have heard others say that she is not dead, that they have heard in their turn from others that she yet lives. An hour ago, I knew not what to think. To-day, I saw her in a crowded church. I heard her voice, though I could not reach her in the throng, struggle how I would. I followed her in haste, I lost her at one turning, I saw her before me at the next. At last a figure, clothed as she had been clothed, entered your house. Whether it was she I know not certainly, but I do know that in the church I saw her. She cannot be within your dwelling without your knowledge; if she be here--then I have found her, my journey is ended, my wanderings have led me home at last. If she be not here, if I have been mistaken, I entreat you to let me set eyes on that other whom I mistook for her, to forgive then my mannerless intrusion and to let me go."
Unorna had listened with half-closed eyes, but with unfaltering attention, watching the speaker's face from beneath her drooping lids, making no effort to read his thoughts, but weighing his words and impressing every detail of his story upon her mind. When he had done there was silence for a time, broken only by the plash and ripple of the falling water.
"She is not here," said Unorna at last. "You shall see for yourself. There is indeed in this house a young girl to whom I am deeply attached, who has grown up at my side and has always lived under my roof. She is very pale and dark, and is dressed always in black."
"Like her I saw."
"You shall see her again. I will send for her." Unorna pressed an ivory key in the silver ball which lay beside her, attached to a thick cord of white silk. "Ask Sletchna Axenia to come to me," she said to the servant who opened the door in the distance, out of sight behind the forest of plants.
Amid less unusual surroundings the Wanderer would have rejected with contempt the last remnants of his belief in the identity of Unorna's companion, with Beatrice. But, being where he was, he felt unable to decide between the possible and the impossible, between what he might reasonably expect and what lay beyond the bounds of reason itself. The air he breathed was so loaded with rich exotic perfumes, the woman before him was so little like other women, her strangely mismatched eyes had for his own such a disquieting attraction, all that he saw and felt and heard was so far removed from the commonplaces of daily life as to make him feel that he himself was becoming a part of some other person's existence, that he was being gradually drawn away from his identity, and was losing the power of thinking his own thoughts. He reasoned as the shadows reason in dreamland, the boundaries of common probability receded to an immeasurable distance, and he almost ceased to know where reality ended and where imagination took up the sequence of events.
Who was this woman, who called herself Unorna? He tried to consider the question, and to bring his intelligence to bear upon it. Was she a great lady of Prague, rich, capricious, creating a mysterious existence for herself, merely for her own good pleasure? Her language, her voice, her evident refinement gave colour to the idea, which was in itself attractive to a man who had long ceased to expect novelty in this working-day world. He glanced at her face, musing and wondering, inhaling the sweet, intoxicating odours of the flowers and listening to the tinkling of the hidden fountain. Her eyes were gazing into his, and again, as if by magic, the curtain of life's stage was drawn together in misty folds, shutting out the past, the present, and the future, the fact, the doubt, and the hope, in an interval of perfect peace.
He was roused by the sound of a light footfall upon the marble pavement. Unorna's eyes were turned from his, and with something like a movement of surprise he himself looked towards the new comer. A young girl was standing under the shadow of a great letonia at a short distance from him. She was very pale indeed, but not with that death- like, waxen pallor which had chilled him when he had looked upon that other face. There was a faint resemblance in the small, aquiline features, the dress was black, and the figure of the girl before him was assuredly neither much taller nor much shorter than that of the woman he loved and sought. But the likeness went no further, and he knew that he had been utterly mistaken.
Unorna exchanged a few indifferent words with Axenia and dismissed her.
"You have seen," she said, when the young girl was gone. "Was it she who entered the house just now?"
"Yes. I was misled by a mere resemblance. Forgive me for my importunity--let me thank you most sincerely for your great kindness." He rose as he spoke.
"Do not go," said Unorna, looking at him earnestly.
He stood still, silent, as though his attitude should explain itself, and yet expecting that she would say something further. He felt that her eyes were upon him, and he raised his own to meet the look frankly, as was his wont. For the first time since he had entered her presence he felt that there was more than a mere disquieting attraction in her steady gaze; there was a strong, resistless fascination, from which he had no power to withdraw himself. Almost unconsciously he resumed his seat, still looking at her, while telling himself with a severe effort that he would look but one instant longer and then turn away. Ten seconds passed, twenty, half a minute, in total silence. He was confused, disturbed, and yet wholly unable to shut out her penetrating glance. His fast ebbing consciousness barely allowed him to wonder whether he was weakened by the strong emotions he had felt in the church, or by the first beginning of some unknown and unexpected malady. He was utterly weak and unstrung. He could neither rise from his seat, nor lift his hand, nor close the lids of his eyes. It was as though an irresistible force were drawing him into the depths of a fathomless whirlpool, down, down, by its endless giddy spirals, robbing him of a portion of his consciousness at every gyration, so that he left behind him at every instant something of his individuality, something of the central faculty of self-recognition. He felt no pain, but he did not feel that inexpressible delight of peace which already twice had descended upon him. He experienced a rapid diminution of all perception, of all feeling, of all intelligence. Thought, and the memory of thought, ebbed from his brain and left it vacant, as the waters of a lock subside when the gates are opened, leaving emptiness in their place.
Unorna's eyes turned from him, and she raised her hand a moment, letting it fall again upon her knee. Instantly the strong man was restored to himself; his weakness vanished, his sight was clear, his intelligence was awake. Instantly the certainty flashed upon him that Unorna possessed the power of imposing the hypnotic sleep and had exercised that gift upon him, unexpectedly and against his will. He would have more willingly supposed that he had been the victim of a momentary physical faintness, for the idea of having been thus subjected to the influence of a woman, and of a woman whom he hardly knew, was repugnant to him, and had in it something humiliating to his pride, or at least to his vanity. But he could not escape the conviction forced upon him by the circumstances.
"Do not go far, for I may yet help you," said Unorna, quietly. "Let us talk of this matter and consult what is best to be done. Will you accept a woman's help?"
"Readily. But I cannot accept her will as mine, nor resign my consciousness into her keeping."
"Not for the sake of seeing her whom you say you love?"
The Wanderer was silent, being yet undetermined how to act, and still unsteadied by what he had experienced. But he was able to reason, and he asked of his judgment what he should do, wondering what manner of woman Unorna might prove to be, and whether she was anything more than one of those who live and even enrich themselves by the exercise of the unusual faculties of powers nature has given them. He had seen many of that class, and he considered most of them to be but half fanatics, half charlatans, worshipping in themselves as something almost divine that which was but a physical power, or weakness, beyond their own limited comprehension. Though a whole school of wise and thoughtful men had already produced remarkable results and elicited astounding facts by sifting the truth through a fine web of closely logical experiment, it did not follow that either Unorna, or any other self-convinced, self-taught operator could do more than grope blindly towards the light, guided by intuition alone amongst the varied and misleading phenomena of hypnotism. The thought of accepting the help of one who was probably, like most of her kind, a deceiver of herself and therefore, and thereby, of others, was an affront to the dignity of his distress, a desecration of his love's sanctity, a frivolous invasion of love's holiest ground. But, on the other hand, he was stimulated to catch at the veriest shadows of possibility by the certainty that he was at last within the same city with her he loved, and he knew that hypnotic subjects are sometimes able to determine the abode of persons whom no one else can find. To-morrow it might be too late. Even before to-day's sun had set Beatrice might be once more taken from him, snatched away to the ends of the earth by her father's ever-changing caprice. To lose a moment now might be to lose all.
He was tempted to yield, to resign his will into Unorna's hands, and his sight to her leading, to let her bid him sleep and see the truth. But then, with a sudden reaction of his individuality, he realized that he had another course, surer, simpler, more dignified. Beatrice was in Prague. It was little probable that she was permanently established in the city, and in all likelihood she and her father were lodged in one of the two or three great hotels. To be driven from the one to the other of these would be but an affair of minutes. Failing information from this source, there remained the registers of the Austrian police, whose vigilance takes note of every stranger's name and dwelling-place.
"I thank you," he said. "If all my inquiries fail, and if you will let me visit you once more to-day, I will then ask your help."
"You are right," Unorna answered.