The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
After leaving Unorna at the convent, the Wanderer had not hesitated as to the course he should pursue. It was quite clear that the only person to whom he could apply at the present juncture was Keyork Arabian. Had he been at liberty to act in the most natural and simple way, he would have applied to the authorities for a sufficient force with which to take Israel Kafka into custody as a dangerous lunatic. He was well aware, however, that such a proceeding must lead to an inquiry of a more or less public nature, of which the consequences might be serious, or at least extremely annoying, to Unorna. Of the inconvenience to which he might himself be exposed, he would have taken little account, though his position would have been as difficult to explain as any situation could be. The important point was to prevent the possibility of Unorna's name being connected with an open scandal. Every present circumstance in the case was directly or indirectly the result of Unorna's unreasoning passion for himself, and it was clearly his duty, as a man of honour, to shield her from the consequences of her own acts, as far as lay in his power.
He did not indeed believe literally all that she had told him in her mad confession. Much of that, he was convinced, was but a delusion. It might be possible, indeed, for Unorna to produce forgetfulness of such a dream as she impressed upon Kafka's mind in the cemetery that same afternoon, or even, perhaps, of some real circumstance of merely relative importance in a man's life; but the Wanderer could not believe that it was in her power to destroy the memory of the great passion through which she pretended that he himself had passed. He smiled at the idea, for he had always trusted his own senses and his own memory. Unorna's own mind was clearly wandering, or else she had invented the story, supposing him credulous enough to believe it. In either case it did not deserve a moment's consideration except as showing to what lengths her foolish and ill-bestowed love could lead her.
Meanwhile she was in danger. She had aroused the violent and deadly resentment of Israel Kafka, a man who, if not positively insane, as Keyork Arabian had hinted, was by no means in a normal state of mind or body, a man beside himself with love and anger, and absolutely reckless of life for the time being, a man who, for the security of all concerned, must be at least temporarily confined in a place of safety, until a proper treatment and the lapse of a certain length of time should bring him to his senses. For the present, he was wholly untractable, being at the mercy of the most uncontrolled passions and of one of those intermittent phases of blind fatalism to which the Semitic races are peculiarly subject.
There were two reasons which determined the Wanderer to turn to Keyork Arabian for assistance, besides his wish to see the bad business end quickly and without publicity. Keyork, so far as the Wanderer was aware, was himself treating Israel Kafka's case, and would therefore know what to do, if any one knew at all. Secondly, it was clear from the message which Unorna had left with the porter of her own house that she expected Keyork to come at any moment. He was then in immediate danger of being brought face to face with Israel Kafka without having received the least warning of his present condition, and it was impossible to say what the infuriated youth might do at such a moment. He had been shut up, caught in his own trap, as it were, for some time, and his anger and madness might reasonably be supposed to have been aggravated rather than cooled by his unexpected confinement. It was as likely as not that he would use the weapon he carried upon the first person with whom he found himself face to face, especially if that person made any attempt to overpower and disarm him.
The Wanderer drove to Keyork Arabian's house, and leaving his carriage to wait in case of need, ascended the stairs and knocked at the door. For some reason or other Keyork would not have a bell in his dwelling, whether because, like Mahomet, he regarded the bell as the devil's instrument, or because he was really nervously sensitive to the sound of one, nobody had ever discovered. The Wanderer knocked therefore, and Keyork answered the knock in person.
"My dear friend!" he exclaimed in his richest and deepest voice, as he recognised the Wanderer. "Come in. I am delighted to see you. You will join me at supper. This is good indeed!"
He took his visitor by the arm and led him in. Upon one of the tables stood a round brass platter covered, so far as it was visible, with Arabic inscriptions, and highly polished--one of those commonly used all over the East at the present day for the same purpose. Upon this were placed at random several silver bowls, mere hemispheres without feet, remaining in a convenient position by their own weight. One of these contained snowy rice, in that perfectly dry but tender state dear to the taste of Orientals, in another there was a savoury, steaming mess of tender capon, chopped in pieces with spices and aromatic herbs, a third contained a pure white curd of milk, and a fourth was heaped up with rare fruits. A flagon of Bohemian glass, clear and bright as rock-crystal, and covered with very beautiful traceries of black and gold, with a drinking-vessel of the same design, stood upon the table beside the platter.
"My simple meal," said Keyork, spreading out his hands, and smiling pleasantly. "You will share it with me. There will be enough for two."
"So far as I am concerned, I should say so," the Wanderer answered with a smile. "But my business is rather urgent."
Suddenly he saw that there was a third person in the room, and glanced at Keyork in surprise.
"I want to speak a few words with you alone," he said. "I would not trouble you but----"
"Not in the least, not in the least, my dear friend!" asseverated Keyork, motioning him to a chair beside the board.
"But we are not alone," observed the Wanderer, still standing and looking at the stranger. Keyork saw the glance and understood. He broke into peals of laughter.
"That!" he exclaimed, presently. "That is only the Individual. He will not disturb us. Pray be seated."
"I assure you that my business is very private--" the Wanderer objected.
"Quite so--of course. But there is nothing to fear. The Individual is my servant--a most excellent creature who has been with me for many years. He cooks for me, cleans the specimens, and takes care of me in all ways. A most reliable man, I assure you."
"Of course, if you can answer for his discretion----"
The Individual was standing at a little distance from the table observing the two men intently but respectfully with his keen little black eyes. The rest of his square, dark face expressed nothing. He had perfectly straight, jet-black hair which hung evenly all around his head and flat against his cheeks. He was dressed entirely in a black robe of the nature of a kaftan, gathered closely round his waist by a black girdle, and fitting tightly over his stalwart shoulders.
"His discretion is beyond all doubt," Keyork answered, "and for the best of all reasons. He is totally deaf and dumb and absolutely illiterate. I brought him years ago in Astrakhan, of a Russian friend. He is very clever with his fingers. It is he who stole for me the Malayan lady's head over there, after she was executed. And now, my dear friend, let us have supper."
There were neither plates nor knives nor forks upon the table, and at a sign from Keyork the Individual retired to procure those Western incumbrances to eating. The Wanderer, acquainted as he had long been with his host's eccentricities, showed little surprise, but understood that whatever he said would not be overheard, any more than if they had been alone. He hesitated a moment, however, for he had not determined exactly how far it was necessary to acquaint Keyork with the circumstances, and he was anxious to avoid all reference to Unorna's folly in regard to himself. The Individual returned, bringing, with other things, a drinking-glass for the Wanderer. Keyork filled it and then filled his own. It was clear that ascetic practices formed no part of his scheme for the prolongation of life. As he raised his glass to his lips, his bright eyes twinkled.
"To Keyork's long life and happiness," he said calmly, and then sipped the wine. "And now for your story," he added, brushing the brown drops from his white moustache with a small damask napkin which the Individual presented to him and immediately received again, to throw it aside as unfit for a second use.
"I hardly think that we can afford to linger over supper," the Wanderer said, noticing Keyork's coolness with some anxiety. "The case is urgent. Israel Kafka has lost his head completely. He has sworn to kill Unorna, and is at the present moment confined in the conservatory in her house."
The effect of the announcement upon Keyork was so extraordinary that the Wanderer started, not being prepared for any manifestation of what seemed to be the deepest emotion. The gnome sprang from the table with a cry that would have been like the roar of a wounded wild beast if it had not articulated a terrific blasphemy.
"Unorna is quite safe," the Wanderer hastened to say.
"Safe--where?" shouted the little man, his hands already on his furs. The Individual, too, had sprung across the room like a cat and was helping him. In five seconds Keyork would have been out of the house.
"In a convent. I took her there, and saw the gate close behind her."
Keyork dropped his furs and stood still a moment. The Individual, always unmoved, rearranged the coat and cap neatly in their place, following all his master's movements, however, with his small eyes. Then the sage broke out in a different strain. He flung his arms round the Wanderer's body and attempted to embrace him.
"You have saved my life!--the curse of the three black angels on you for not saying so first!" he cried in an agony of ecstasy. "Preserver! What can I do for you?--Saviour of my existence, how can I repay you! You shall live forever, as I will; you shall have all my secrets; the gold spider shall spin her web in your dwelling; the Part of Fortune shall shine on your path, it shall rain jewels on your roof; and your winter shall have snows of pearls--you shall--"
"Good Heavens! Keyork," interrupted the Wanderer. "Are you mad? What is the matter with you?"
"Mad? The matter? I love you! I worship you! I adore you! You have saved her life, and you have saved mine; you have almost killed me with fright and joy in two moments, you have--"
"Be sensible, Keyork. Unorna is quite safe, but we must do something about Kafka and--"
The rest of his speech was drowned in another shout from the gnome, ending in a portentous peal of laughter. He had taken his glass again and was toasting himself.
"To Keyork, to his long life, to his happiness!" he cried. Then he wet his lips again in the golden juice, and the Individual, unmoved, presented him with a second napkin.
The wine seemed to steady him, and he sat down again in his place.
"Come!" he said. "Let us eat first. I have an amazing appetite, and Israel Kafka can wait."
"Do you think so? Is it safe?" the Wanderer asked.
"Perfectly," returned Keyork, growing quite calm again. "The locks are very good on those doors. I saw to them myself."
"But some one else--"
"There is no some one else," interrupted the sage sharply. "Only three persons can enter the house without question--you, I, and Kafka. You and I are here, and Kafka is there already. When we have eaten we will go to him, and I flatter myself that the last state of the young man will be so immeasurably worse than the first, that he will not recognise himself when I have done with him."
He had helped his friend and began eating. Somewhat reassured the Wanderer followed his example. Under the circumstances it was as well to take advantage of the opportunity for refreshment. No one could tell what might happen before morning.
"It just occurs to me," said Keyork, fixing his keen eyes on his companion's face, "that you have told me absolutely nothing, except that Kafka is mad and that Unorna is safe."
"Those are the most important points," observed the Wanderer.
"Precisely. But I am sure that you will not think me indiscreet if I wish to know a little more. For instance, what was the immediate cause of Kafka's extremely theatrical and unreasonable rage? That would interest me very much. Of course, he is mad, poor boy! But I take delight in following out the workings of an insane intellect. Now there are no phases of insanity more curious than those in which the patient is possessed with a desire to destroy what he loves best. These cases are especially worthy of study because they happen so often in our day."
The Wanderer saw that some explanation was necessary and he determined to give one in as few words as possible.
"Unorna and I had strolled into the Jewish Cemetery," he said. "While we were talking there, Israel Kafka suddenly came upon us and spoke and acted very wildly. He is madly in love with her. She became very angry and would not let me interfere. Then, by way of punishment for his intrusion I suppose, she hypnotised him and made him believe that he was Simon Abeles, and brought the whole of the poor boy's life so vividly before me, as I listened, that I actually seemed to see the scenes. I was quite unable to stop her or to move from where I stood, though I was quite awake. But I realised what was going on and I was disgusted at her cruelty to the unfortunate man. He fainted at the end, but when he came to himself he seemed to remember nothing. I took him home and Unorna went away by herself. Then he questioned me so closely as to what had happened that I was weak enough to tell him the truth. Of course, as a fervent Hebrew, which he seems to be, he did not relish the idea of having played the Christian martyr for Unorna's amusement, and amidst the graves of his own people. He there and then impressed me that he intended to take Unorna's life without delay, but insisted that I should warn her of her danger, saying that he would not be a common murderer. Seeing that he was mad and in earnest I went to her. There was some delay, which proved fortunate, as it turned out, for we left the conservatory by the small door just as he was entering from the other end. We locked it behind us, and going round by the passages locked the other door upon him also, so that he was caught in a trap. And there he is, unless some one has let him out."
"And then you took Unorna to the convent?" Keyork had listened attentively.
"I took her to the convent, promising to come to her when she should send for me. Then I saw that I must consult you before doing anything more. It will not do to make a scandal of the matter."
"No," answered Keyork thoughtfully. "It will not do."
The Wanderer had told his story with perfect truth and yet in a way which entirely concealed the very important part Unorna's passion for him had played in the sequence of events. Seeing that Keyork asked no further questions he felt satisfied that he had accomplished his purpose as he had intended, and that the sage suspected nothing. He would have been very much disconcerted had he known that the latter had long been aware of Unorna's love, and was quite able to guess at the cause of Kafka's sudden appearance and extreme excitement. Indeed, so soon as he had finished the short narrative, his mind reverted with curiosity to Keyork himself, and he wondered what the little man had meant by his amazing outburst of gratitude on hearing of Unorna's safety. Perhaps he loved her. More impossible things than that had occurred in the Wanderer's experience. Or, possibly, he had an object to gain in exaggerating his thankfulness to Unorna's preserver. He knew that Keyork rarely did anything without an object, and that, although he was occasionally very odd and excitable, he was always in reality perfectly well aware of what he was doing. He was roused from his speculations by Keyork's voice.
"There will be no difficulty in securing Kafka," he said. "The real question is, what shall we do with him? He is very much in the way at present, and he must be disposed of at once, or we shall have more trouble. How infinitely more to the purpose it would have been if he had wisely determined to cut his own throat instead of Unorna's! But young men are so thoughtless!"
"I will only say one thing," said the Wanderer, "and then I will leave the direction to you. The poor fellow has been driven mad by Unorna's caprice and cruelty. I am determined that he shall not be made to suffer gratuitously anything more."
"Do you think that Unorna was intentionally cruel to him?" inquired Keyork. "I can hardly believe that. She has not a cruel nature."
"You would have changed your mind, if you had seen her this afternoon. But that is not the question. I will not allow him to be ill-treated."
"No, no! of course not!" Keyork answered with eager assent. "But of course you will understand that we have to deal with a dangerous lunatic, and that it may be necessary to use whatever means are most sure and certain."
"I shall not quarrel with your means," the Wanderer said quietly, "provided that there is no unnecessary brutality. If I see anything of the kind I will take the matter into my own hands."
"Certainly, certainly!" said the other, eyeing with curiosity the man who spoke so confidently of taking out of Keyork Arabian's grasp whatever had once found its way into it.
"He shall be treated with every consideration," the Wanderer continued. "Of course, if he is very violent, we shall have to use force."
"We will take the Individual with us," said Keyork. "He is very strong. He has a trick of breaking silver florins with his thumbs and fingers which is very pretty."
"I fancy that you and I could manage him. It is a pity that neither of us has the faculty of hypnotising. This would be the proper time to use it."
"A great pity. But there are other things that will do almost as well."
"What, for instance?"
"A little ether in a sponge. He would only struggle a moment, and then he would be much more really unconscious than if he had been hypnotised."
"Is it quite painless?"
"Quite, if you give it gradually. If you hurry the thing, the man feels as though he were being smothered. But the real difficulty is what to do with him, as I said before."
"Take him home and get a keeper from the lunatic asylum," the Wanderer suggested.
"Then comes the whole question of an inquiry into his sanity," objected Keyork. "We come back to the starting-point. We must settle all this before we go to him. A lunatic asylum is not a club in this country. There is a great deal of formality connected with getting into it, and a great deal more connected with getting out. Now, I could not get a keeper for Kafka without going to the physician in charge and making a statement, and demanding an examination, and all the rest of it. And Israel Kafka is a person of importance among his own people. He comes of great Jews in Moravia, and we should have the whole Jews' quarter--which means nearly the whole of Prague, in a broad sense--about our ears in twenty-four hours. No, no, my friend. To avoid an enormous scandal things must be done very quietly indeed."
"I cannot see anything to be done, then, unless we bring him here," said the Wanderer, falling into the trap from sheer perplexity. Everything that Keyork had said was undeniably true.
"He would be a nuisance in the house," answered the sage, not wishing, for reasons of his own, to appear to accept the proposition too eagerly. "Not but that the Individual would make a capital keeper. He is as gentle as he is strong, and as quick as a tiger-cat."
"So far as that is concerned," said the Wanderer coolly, "I could take charge of him myself, if you did not object to my presence."
"You do not trust me," said the other, with a sharp glance.
"My dear Keyork, we are old acquaintances, and I trust you implicitly to do whatever you have predetermined to do for the advantage of your studies, unless some one interferes with you. You have no more respect for human life or sympathy for human suffering than you have belief in the importance of anything not conducive to your researches. I am perfectly well aware that if you thought you could learn something by making experiments upon the body of Israel Kafka, you would not scruple to make a living mummy of him, you would do it without the least hesitation. I should expect to find him with his head cut off, living by means of a glass heart and thinking through a rabbit's brain. That is the reason why I do not trust you. Before I could deliver him into your hands, I would require of you a contract to give him back unhurt--and a contract of the kind you would consider binding."
Keyork Arabian wondered whether Unorna, in the recklessness of her passion, had betrayed the nature of the experiment they had been making together, but a moment's reflection told him that he need have no anxiety on this score. He understood the Wanderer's nature too well to suspect him of wishing to convey a covert hint instead of saying openly what was in his mind.
"Taste one of these oranges," he said, by way of avoiding an answer. "they have just come from Smyrna." The Wanderer smiled as he took the proffered fruit.
"So that unless you have a serious objection to my presence," he said, continuing his former speech, "you will have me as a guest so long as Israel Kafka is here."
Keyork Arabian saw no immediate escape.
"My dear friend!" he exclaimed with alacrity. "If you are really in earnest, I am as really delighted. So far from taking your distrust ill, I regard it as a providentially fortunate bias of your mind, since it will keep us together for a time. You will be the only loser. You see how simply I live."
"There is a simplicity which is the extremest development of refined sybarism," the Wanderer said, smiling again. "I know your simplicity of old. It consists of getting precisely what you want, and in producing local earthquakes and revolutions when you cannot get it. Moreover you want what is good--to the taste, at least."
"There is something in that," answered Keyork with a merry twinkle in his eye. "Happiness is a matter of speculation. Comfort is a matter of fact. Most men are uncomfortable, because they do not know what they want. If you have tastes, study them. If you have intelligence, apply it to the question of gratifying your tastes. Consult yourself first-- and nobody second. Consider this orange--I am fond of oranges and they suit my constitution admirably. Consider the difficulty I have had in procuring it at this time of year--not in the wretched condition in which they are sold in the market, plucked half green in Spain or Italy and ripened on the voyage in the fermenting heat of the decay of those which are already rotten--but ripe from the tree and brought to me directly by the shortest and quickest means possible. Consider this orange, I say. Do you vainly imagine that if I had but two or three like it I would offer you one?"
"I would not be so rash as to imagine anything of the kind, my dear Keyork. I know you very well. If you offer me one it is because you have a week's supply at least."
"Exactly," said Keyork. "And a few to spare, because they will only keep a week as I like them, and because I would no more run the risk of missing my orange a week hence for your sake, than I would deprive myself of it to-day."
"And that is your simplicity."
"That is my simplicity. It is indeed a perfectly simple matter, for there is only one idea in it, and in all things I carry that one idea out to its ultimate expression. That one idea, as you very well put it, is to have exactly what I want in this world."
"And will you be getting what you want in having me quartered upon you as poor Israel Kafka's keeper?" asked the Wanderer, with an expression of amusement. But Keyork did not wince.
"Precisely," he answered without hesitation. "In the first place you will relieve me of much trouble and responsibility, and the Individual will not be so often called away from his manifold and important household duties. In the second place I shall have a most agreeable and intelligent companion with whom I can talk as long as I like. In the third place I shall undoubtedly satisfy my curiosity."
"In what respect, if you please?"
"I shall discover the secret of your wonderful interest in Israel Kafka's welfare. I always like to follow the workings of a brain essentially different from my own, philanthropic, of course. How could it be anything else? Philanthropy deals with a class of ideas wholly unfamiliar to me. I shall learn much in your society."
"And possibly I shall learn something from you," the Wanderer answered. "There is certainly much to be learnt. I wonder whether your ideas upon all subjects are as simple as those you hold about oranges."
"Absolutely. I make no secret of my principles. Everything I do is for my own advantage."
"Then," observed the Wanderer, "the advantage of Unorna's life must be an enormous one to you, to judge by your satisfaction at her safety."
Keyork stared at him a moment and then laughed, but less heartily and loudly than usual his companion fancied.
"Very good!" he exclaimed. "Excellent! I fell into the trap like a rat into a basin of water. You are indeed an interesting companion, my dear friend--so interesting that I hope we shall never part again." There was a rather savage intonation in the last words.
They looked at each other intently, neither wincing nor lowering his gaze. The Wanderer saw that he had touched upon Keyork's greatest and most important secret, and Keyork fancied that his companion knew more than he actually did. But nothing further was said, for Keyork was far too wise to enter into explanation, and the Wanderer knew well enough that if he was to learn anything it must be by observation and not by questioning. Keyork filled both glasses in silence and both men drank before speaking again.
"And now that we have refreshed ourselves," he said, returning naturally to his former manner, "we will go and find Israel Kafka. It is as well that we should have given him a little time to himself. He may have returned to his senses without any trouble on our part. Shall we take the Individual?"
"As you please," the Wanderer answered indifferently as he rose from his place.
"It is very well for you not to care," observed Keyork. "You are big and strong and young, whereas I am a little man and very old at that. I shall take him for my own protection. I confess that I value my life very highly. It is a part of that simplicity which you despise. That devil of a Jew is armed, you say?"
"I saw something like a knife in his hand, as we shut him in," said the Wanderer with the same indifference as before.
"Then I will take the Individual," Keyork answered promptly. "A man's bare hands must be strong and clever to take a man's life in a scuffle, and few men can use a pistol to any purpose. But a knife is a weapon of precision. I will take the Individual, decidedly."
He made a few rapid signs, and the Individual disappeared, coming back a moment later attired in a long coat not unlike his master's except that the fur of the great collar was of common fox instead of being of sable. Keyork drew his peaked cape comfortably down over the tips of his ears.
"The ether!" he exclaimed. "How forgetful I am growing! Your charming conversation had almost made me forget the object of our visit!"
He went back and took the various things he needed. Then the three men went out together.