The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
Unorna was hardly conscious of what she had done. She had not had the intention of making Beatrice sleep, for she had no distinct intention whatever at that moment. Her words and her look had been but the natural results of overstrained passion, and she repeated what she had said again and again, and gazed long and fiercely into Beatrice's face before she realised that she had unintentionally thrown her rival and enemy into the intermediate state. It is rarely that the first stage of hypnotism produces the same consequences in two different individuals. In Beatrice it took the form of total unconsciousness, as though she had merely fainted away.
Unorna gradually regained her self-possession. After all, Beatrice had told her nothing which she did not either wholly know or partly guess, and her anger was not the result of the revelation but of the way in which the story had been told. Word after word, phrase after phrase had cut her and stabbed her to the quick, and when Beatrice had thrust the miniature into her hands her wrath had risen in spite of herself. But now that she had returned to a state in which she could think connectedly, and now that she saw Beatrice asleep before her, she did not regret what she had unwittingly done. From the first moment when, in the balcony over the church, she had realised that she was in the presence of the woman she hated, she had determined to destroy her. To accomplish this she would in any case have used her especial weapons, and though she had intended to steal by degrees upon her enemy, lulling her to sleep by a more gentle fascination, at an hour when the whole convent should be quiet, yet since the first step had been made unexpectedly and without her will, she did not regret it.
She leaned back and looked at Beatrice during several minutes, smiling to herself from time to time, scornfully and cruelly. Then she rose and locked the outer door and closed the inner one carefully. She knew from long ago that no sound could then find its way to the corridor without. She came back and sat down again, and again looked at the sleeping face, and she admitted for the hundredth time that evening, that Beatrice was very beautiful.
"If he could see us now!" she exclaimed aloud.
The thought suggested something to her. She would like to see herself beside this other woman and compare the beauty he loved with the beauty that could not touch him. It was very easy. She found a small mirror, and set it up upon the back of the sofa, on a level with Beatrice's head. Then she changed the position of the lamp and looked at herself, and touched her hair, and smoothed her brow, and loosened the black lace about her white throat. And she looked from herself to Beatrice, and back to herself again, many times.
"It is strange that black should suit us both so well--she so dark and I so fair!" she said. "She will look well when she is dead."
She gazed again for many seconds at the sleeping woman.
"But he will not see her, then," she added, rising to her feet and laying the mirror on the table.
She began to walk up and down the room as was her habit when in deep thought, turning over in her mind the deed to be done and the surest and best way of doing it. It never occurred to her that Beatrice could be allowed to live beyond that night. If the woman had been but an unconscious obstacle in her path Unorna would have spared her life, but as matters stood, she had no inclination to be merciful.
There was nothing to prevent the possibility of a meeting between Beatrice and the Wanderer, if Beatrice remained alive. They were in the same city together, and their paths might cross at any moment. The Wanderer had forgotten, but it was not sure that the artificial forgetfulness would be proof against an actual sight of the woman once so dearly loved. The same consideration was true of Beatrice. She, too, might be made to forget, though it was always an experiment of uncertain issue and of more than uncertain result, even when successful, so far as duration was concerned. Unorna reasoned coldly with herself, recalling all that Keyork Arabian had told her and all that she had read. She tried to admit that Beatrice might be disposed of in some other way, but the difficulties seemed to be insurmountable. To effect such a disappearance Unorna must find some safe place in which the wretched woman might drag out her existence undiscovered. But Beatrice was not like the old beggar who in his hundredth year had leaned against Unorna's door, unnoticed and uncared for, and had been taken in and had never been seen again. The case was different. The aged scholar, too, had been cared for as he could not have been cared for elsewhere, and, in the event of an inquiry being made, he could be produced at any moment, and would even afford a brilliant example of Unorna's charitable doings. But Beatrice was a stranger and a person of some importance in the world. The Cardinal Archbishop himself had directed the nuns to receive her, and they were responsible for her safety. To spirit her away in the night would be a dangerous thing. Wherever she was to be taken, Unorna would have to lead her there alone. Unorna would herself be missed. Sister Paul already suspected that the name of Witch was more than a mere appellation. There would be a search made, and suspicion might easily fall upon Unorna, who would have been obliged, of course, to conceal her enemy in her own house for lack of any other convenient place.
There was no escape from the deed. Beatrice must die. Unorna could produce death in a form which could leave no trace, and it would be attributed to a weakness of the heart. Does any one account otherwise for those sudden deaths which are no longer unfrequent in the world? A man, a woman, is to all appearances in perfect health. He or she was last seen by a friend, who describes the conversation accurately, and expresses astonishment at the catastrophe which followed so closely upon the visit. He, or she, is found alone by a servant, or a third person, in a profound lethargy from which neither restoratives nor violent shocks upon the nerves can produce any awakening. In one hour, or a few hours, it is over. There is an examination, and the authorities pronounce an ambiguous verdict--death from a syncope of the heart. Such things happen, they say, with a shake of the head. And, indeed, they know that such things really do happen, and they suspect that they do not happen naturally; but there is no evidence, not even so much as may be detected in a clever case of vegetable poisoning. The heart has stopped beating, and death has followed. There are wise men by the score to-day who do not ask "What made it stop?" but "Who made it stop?" But they have no evidence to bring, and the new jurisprudence, which in some countries covers the cases of thefts and frauds committed under hypnotic suggestion, cannot as yet lay down the law for cases where a man has been told to die, and dies --from "weakness of the heart." And yet it is known, and well known, that by hypnotic suggestion the pulse can be made to fall to the lowest number of beatings consistent with life, and that the temperature of the body can be commanded beforehand to stand at a certain degree and fraction of a degree at a certain hour, high or low, as may be desired. Let those who do not believe read the accounts of what is done from day to day in the great European seats of learning, accounts of which every one bears the name of some man speaking with authority and responsible to the world of science for every word he speaks, and doubly so for every word he writes. A few believe in the antiquated doctrine of electric animal currents, the vast majority are firm in the belief that the influence is a moral one --all admit that whatever force, or influence, lies at the root of hypnotism, the effects it can produce are practically unlimited, terrible in their comprehensiveness, and almost entirely unprovided for in the scheme of modern criminal law.
Unorna was sure of herself, and of her strength to perform what she contemplated. There lay the dark beauty in the corner of the sofa, where she had sat and talked so long, and told her last story, the story of her life which was now to end. A few determined words spoken in her ear, a pressure of the hand upon the brow and the heart, and she would never wake again. She would lie there still, until they found her, hour after hour, the pulse growing weaker and weaker, the delicate hands colder, the face more set. At the last, there would be a convulsive shiver of the queenly form, and that would be the end. The physicians and the authorities would come and would speak of a weakness of the heart, and there would be masses sung for her soul, and she would rest in peace.
Her soul? In peace? Unorna stood still. Was that to be all her vengeance upon the woman who stood between her and happiness? Was there to be nothing but that, nothing but the painless passing of the pure young spirit from earth to heaven? Was no one to suffer for all Unorna's pain? It was not enough. There must be more than that. And yet, what more? That was the question. What imaginable wealth of agony would be a just retribution for her existence? Unorna could lead her, as she had led Israel Kafka, through the life and death of a martyr, through a life of wretchedness and a death of shame, but then, the moment must come at last, since this was to be death indeed, and her spotless soul would be beyond Unorna's reach forever. No, that was not enough. Since she could not be allowed to live to be tormented, vengeance must follow her beyond the end of life.
Unorna stood still and an awful light of evil came into her face. A thought of which the enormity would have terrified a common being had entered her mind and taken possession of it. Beatrice was in her power. Beatrice should die in mortal sin, and her soul would be lost for ever.
For a long time she did not move, but stood looking down at the calm and lovely face of her sleeping enemy, devising a crime to be imposed upon her for her eternal destruction. Unorna was very superstitious, or the hideous scheme could never have presented itself to her. To her mind the deed was everything, whatever it was to be, and the intention or the unconsciousness in doing it could have nothing to do with the consequences to the soul of the doer. She made no theological distinctions. Beatrice should commit some terrible crime and should die in committing it. Then she would be lost, and devils would do in hell the worst torment which Unorna could not do on earth. A crime--a robbery, a murder--it must be done in the convent. Unorna hesitated, bending her brows and poring in imagination over the dark catalogue of all imaginable evil.
A momentary and vague terror cast its shadow on her thoughts. By some accident of connection between two ideas, her mind went back a month, and reviewed as in a flash of light all that she had thought and done since that day. She had greatly changed since then. She could think calmly now of deeds which even she would not have dared then. She thought of the evening when she had cried aloud that she would give her soul to know the Wanderer safe, of the quick answer that had followed, and of Keyork Arabian's face. Was he a devil, indeed, as she sometimes fancied, and had there been a reality and a binding meaning in that contract?
Keyork Arabian! He, indeed, possessed the key to all evil. What would he have done with Beatrice? Would he make her rob the church--murder the abbess in her sleep? Bad, but not bad enough.
Unorna started. A deed suggested itself so hellish, so horrible in its enormity, so far beyond all conceivable human sin, that for one moment her brain reeled. She shuddered again and again, and groped for support and leaned against the wall in a bodily weakness of terror. For one moment she, who feared nothing, was shaken by fear from head to foot, her face turned white, her knees shook, her sight failed her, her teeth chattered, her lips moved hysterically.
But she was strong still. The thing she had sought had come to her suddenly. She set her teeth, and thought of it again and again, till she could face the horror of it without quaking. Is there any limit to the hardening of the human heart?
The distant bells rang out the call to midnight prayer. Unorna stopped and listened. She had not known how quickly time was passing. But it was better so. She was glad it was so late, and she said so to herself, but the evil smile that was sometimes in her face was not there now. She had thought a thought that left a mark on her forehead. Was there any reality in that jesting contract with Keyork Arabian?
She must wait before she did the deed. The nuns would go down into the lighted church, and kneel and pray before the altar. It would last some time, the midnight lessons, the psalms, the prayers--and she must be sure that all was quiet, for the deed could not be done in the room where Beatrice was sleeping.
She was conscious of the time now, and every minute seemed an hour, and every second was full of that one deed, done over and over again before her eyes, until every awful detail of the awful whole was stamped indelibly upon her brain. She had sat down now, and leaning forwards, was watching the innocent woman and wondering how she would look when she was doing it. But she was calm now, as she felt that she had never been in her life. Her breath came evenly, her heart beat naturally, she thought connectedly of what she was about to do. But the time seemed endless.
The distant clocks chimed the half hour, three-quarters, past midnight. Still she waited. At the stroke of one she rose from her seat, and standing beside Beatrice laid her hand upon the dark brow.
A few questions, a few answers followed. She must assure herself that her victim was in the right state to execute minutely all her commands. Then she opened the door upon the corridor and listened. Not a sound broke the intense stillness, and all was dark. The hanging lamp had been extinguished and the nuns had all returned from the midnight service to their cells. No one would be stirring now until four o'clock, and half an hour was all that Unorna needed.
She took Beatrice's hand. The dark woman rose with half-closed eyes and set features. Unorna led her out into the dark passage.
"It is light here," Unorna said. "You can see your way. But I am blind. Take my hand--so--and now lead me to the church by the nun's staircase. Make no noise."
"I do not know the staircase," said the sleeper in drowsy tones.
Unorna knew the way well enough, but not wishing to take a light with her, she was obliged to trust herself to her victim, for whose vision there was no such thing as darkness unless Unorna willed it.
"Go as you went to-day, to the room where the balcony is, but do not enter it. The staircase is on the right of the door, and leads into the choir. Go!"
Without hesitation Beatrice led her out into the impenetrable gloom, with swift, noiseless footsteps in the direction commanded, never wavering nor hesitating whether to turn to the right or the left, but walking as confidently as though in broad daylight. Unorna counted the turnings and knew that there was no mistake. Beatrice was leading her unerringly towards the staircase. They reached it, and began to descend the winding steps. Unorna, holding her leader by one hand, steadied herself with the other against the smooth, curved wall, fearing at every moment lest she should stumble and fall in the total darkness. But Beatrice never faltered. To her the way was as bright as though the noonday sun had shone before her.
The stairs ended abruptly against a door. Beatrice stood still. She had received no further commands and the impulse ceased.
"Draw back the bolt and take me into the church," said Unorna, who could see nothing, but who knew that the nuns fastened the door behind them when they returned into the convent. Beatrice obeyed without hesitation and led her forward.
They came out between the high carved seats of the choir, behind the high altar. The church was not quite as dark as the staircase and passages had been, and Unorna stood still for a moment. In some of the chapels hanging lamps of silver were lighted, and their tiny flames spread a faint radiance upwards and sideways, though not downwards, sufficient to break the total obscurity to eyes accustomed for some minutes to no light at all. The church stood, too, on a little eminence in the city, where the air without was less murky and impenetrable with the night mists, and though there was no moon the high upper windows of the nave were distinctly visible in the gloomy height like great lancet-shaped patches of gray upon a black ground.
In the dimness, all objects took vast and mysterious proportions. A huge giant reared his height against one of the pillars, crowned with a high, pointed crown, stretching out one great shadowy hand into the gloom--the tall pulpit was there, as Unorna knew, and the hand was the wooden crucifix standing out in its extended socket. The black confessionals, too, took shape, like monster nuns, kneeling in their heavy hoods and veils, with heads inclined, behind the fluted pilasters, just within the circle of the feeble chapel lights. Within the choir, the deep shadows seemed to fill the carved stalls with the black ghosts of long dead sisters, returned to their familiar seats out of the damp crypt below. The great lectern in the midst of the half circle behind the high altar became a hideous skeleton, headless, its straight arms folded on its bony breast. The back of the high altar itself was a great throne whereon sat in judgment a misty being of awful form, judging the dead women all through the lonely night. The stillness was appalling. Not a rat stirred.
Unorna shuddered, not at what she saw, but at what she felt. She had reached the place, and the doing of the deed was at hand. Beatrice stood beside her erect, asleep, motionless, her dark face just outlined in the surrounding dusk.
Unorna took her hand and led her forwards. She could see now, and the moment had come. She brought Beatrice before the high altar and made her stand in front of it. Then she herself went back and groped for something in the dark. It was the pair of small wooden steps upon which the priest mounts in order to open the golden door of the high tabernacle above the altar, when it is necessary to take therefrom the Sacred Host for the Benediction, or other consecrated wafers for the administration of the Communion. To all Christians, of all denominations whatsoever, the bread-wafer when once consecrated is a holy thing. To Catholics and Lutherans there is there, substantially, the Presence of God. No imaginable act of sacrilege can be more unpardonable than the desecration of the tabernacle and the wilful defilement and destruction of the Sacred Host.
This was Unorna's determination. Beatrice should commit this crime against Heaven, and then die with the whole weight of it upon her soul, and thus should her soul itself be tormented for ever and ever to ages of ages.
Considering what she believed, it is no wonder that she should have shuddered at the tremendous thought. And yet, in the distortion of her reasoning, the sin would be upon Beatrice who did the act, and not upon herself who commanded it. There was no diminution of her own faith in the sacredness of the place and the holiness of the consecrated object--had she been one whit less sure of that, her vengeance would have been vain and her whole scheme meaningless.
She came back out of the darkness and set the wooden steps in their place before the altar at Beatrice's feet. Then, as though to save herself from all participation in the guilt of the sacrilege which was to follow, she withdrew outside the Communion rail, and closed the gate behind her.
Beatrice, obedient to her smallest command, and powerless to move or act without her suggestion, stood still as she had been placed, with her back to the church and her face to the altar. Above her head the richly wrought door of the tabernacle caught what little light there was and reflected it from its own uneven surface.
Unorna paused a moment, looked at the shadowy figure, and then glanced behind her into the body of the church, not out of any ghostly fear, but to assure herself that she was alone with her victim. She saw that all was quite ready, and then she calmly knelt down just upon one side of the gate and rested her folded hands upon the marble railing. A moment of intense stillness followed. Again the thought of Keyork Arabian flashed across her mind. Had there been any reality, she vaguely wondered, in that compact made with him? What was she doing now? But the crime was to be Beatrice's, not hers. Her heart beat fast for a moment, and then she grew very calm again.
The clock in the church tower chimed the first quarter past one. She was able to count the strokes and was glad to find that she had lost no time. As soon as the long, singing echo of the bells had died away, she spoke, not loudly, but clearly and distinctly.
"Beatrice Varanger, go forward and mount the steps I have placed for you."
The dark figure moved obediently, and Unorna heard the slight sound of Beatrice's foot upon the wood. The shadowy form rose higher and higher in the gloom, and stood upon the altar itself.
"Now do as I command you. Open wide the door of the tabernacle."
Unorna watched the black form intently. It seemed to stretch out its hand as though searching for something, and then the arm fell again to the side.
"Do as I command you," Unorna repeated with the angry and dominant intonation that always came into her voice when she was not obeyed.
Again the hand was raised for a moment, groped in the darkness and sank down into the shadow.
"Beatrice Varanger, you must do my will. I order you to open the door of the tabernacle, to take out what is within and to throw it to the ground!" Her voice rang clearly through the church. "And may the crime be on your soul for ever and ever," she added in a low voice.
A third time the figure moved. A strange flash of light played for a moment upon the tabernacle, the effect, Unorna thought, of the golden door being suddenly opened.
But she was wrong. The figure moved, indeed, and stretched out a hand and moved again. A sudden crash of something very heavy, falling upon stone, broke the great stillness--the dark form tottered, reeled and fell to its length upon the great altar. Unorna saw that the golden door was still closed, and that Beatrice had fallen. Unable to move or act by her own free judgment, and compelled by Unorna's determined command, she had made a desperate effort to obey. Unorna had forgotten that there was a raised step upon the altar itself, and that there were other obstacles in the way, including heavy candlesticks and the framed Canon of the Mass, all of which are usually set aside before the tabernacle is opened by the priest. In attempting to do as she was told, the sleeping woman had stumbled, had overbalanced herself, had clutched one of the great silver candlesticks so that it fell heavily beside her, and then, having no further support, she had fallen herself.
Unorna sprang to her feet and hastily opened the gate of the railing. In a moment she was standing by the altar at Beatrice's head. She could see that the dark eyes were open now. The great shock had recalled her to consciousness.
"Where am I?" she asked in great distress, seeing nothing in the darkness now, and groping with her hands.
"Sleep--be silent and sleep!" said Unorna in low, firm tones, pressing her palm upon the forehead.
"No--no!" cried the startled woman in a voice of horror. "No--I will not sleep--no, do not touch me! Oh, where am I--help! Help!"
She was not hurt. With one strong, lithe movement, she sprang to the ground and stood with her back to the altar, her hands stretched out to defend herself from Unorna. But Unorna knew what extreme danger she was in if Beatrice left the church awake and conscious of what had happened. She seized the moving arms and tried to hold them down, pressing her face forward so as to look into the dark eyes she could but faintly distinguish. It was no easy matter, however, for Beatrice was young and strong and active. Then all at once she began to see Unorna's eyes, as Unorna could see hers, and she felt the terrible influence stealing over her again.
"No--no--no!" she cried, struggling desperately. "You shall not make me sleep. I will not--I will not!"
There was a flash of light again in the church, this time from behind the high altar, and the noise of quick footsteps. But neither Unorna nor Beatrice noticed the light or the sound. Then the full glow of a strong lamp fell upon the faces of both and dazzled them, and Unorna felt a cool thin hand upon her own. Sister Paul was beside them, her face very white and her faded eyes turning from the one to the other.
It was very simple. Soon after Compline was over the nun had gone to Unorna's room, had knocked and had entered. To her surprise Unorna was not there, but Sister Paul imagined that she had lingered over her prayers and would soon return. The good nun had sat down to wait for her, and telling her beads had fallen asleep. The unaccustomed warmth and comfort of the guest's room had been too much for the weariness that constantly oppressed a constitution broken with ascetic practices. Accustomed by long habit to awake at midnight to attend the service, her eyes opened of themselves, indeed, but a full hour later than usual. She heard the clock strike one, and for a moment could not believe her senses. Then she understood that she had been asleep, and was amazed to find that Unorna had not come back. She went out hastily into the corridor. The lay sister had long ago extinguished the hanging lamp, but Sister Paul saw the light streaming from Beatrice's open door. She went in and called aloud. The bed had not been touched. Beatrice was not there. Sister Paul began to think that both the ladies must have gone to the midnight service. The corridors were dark and they might have lost their way. She took the lamp from the table and went to the balcony at which the guests performed their devotion. It had been her light that had flashed across the door of the tabernacle. She had looked down into the choir, and far below her had seen a figure, unrecognisable from that height in the dusk of the church, but clearly the figure of a woman standing upon the altar. Visions of horror rose before her eyes of the sacrilegious practices of witchcraft, for she had thought of nothing else during the whole evening. Lamp in hand she descended the stairs to the choir and reached the altar, providentially, just in time to save Beatrice from falling a victim again to the evil fascination of the enemy who had planned the destruction of her soul as well as of her body.
"What is this? What are you doing in this holy place and at this hour?" asked Sister Paul, solemnly and sternly.
Unorna folded her arms and was silent. No possible explanation of the struggle presented itself even to her quick intellect. She fixed her eyes on the nun's face, concentrating all her will, for she knew that unless she could control her also, she herself was lost. Beatrice answered the question, drawing herself up proudly against the great altar and pointing at Unorna with her outstretched hand, her dark eyes flashing indignantly.
"We were talking together, this woman and I. She looked at me--she was angry--and then I fainted, or fell asleep, I cannot tell which. I awoke in the dark to find myself lying upon the altar here. Then she took hold of me and tried to make me sleep again. But I would not. Let her explain, herself, what she has done, and why she brought me here!"
Sister Paul turned to Unorna and met the full glare of the unlike eyes, with her own calm, half heavenly look of innocence.
"What have you done, Unorna? What have you done?" she asked very sadly.
But Unorna did not answer. She only looked at the nun more fixedly and savagely. She felt that she might as well have looked upon some ancient picture of a saint in heaven, and bid it close its eyes. But she would not give up the attempt, for her only safety lay in its success. For a long time Sister Paul returned her gaze steadily.
"Sleep!" said Unorna, putting up her hand. "Sleep, I command you!"
But Sister Paul's eyes did not waver. A sad smile played for a moment upon her waxen features.
"You have no power over me--for your power is not of good," she said, slowly and softly.
Then she quietly turned to Beatrice, and took her hand.
"Come with me, my daughter," she said. "I have a light and will take you to a place where you will be safe. She will not trouble you any more to-night. Say a prayer, my child, and do not be afraid."
"I am not afraid," said Beatrice. "But where is she?" she asked suddenly.
Unorna had glided away while they were speaking. Sister Paul held the lamp high and looked in all directions. Then she heard the heavy door of the sacristy swing upon its hinges and strike with a soft thud against the small leathern cushion. Both women followed her, but as they opened the door again a blast of cold air almost extinguished the lamp. The night wind was blowing in from the street.
"She is gone out," said Sister Paul. "Alone and at this hour--Heaven help her!" It was as she said, Unorna had escaped.