The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
More than an hour had elapsed since the Wanderer and Unorna had finally turned the key upon Israel Kafka, leaving him to his own reflections. During the first moments he made desperate efforts to get out of the conservatory, throwing himself with all his weight and strength against the doors and thrusting the point of his long knife into the small apertures of the locks. Then, seeing that every attempt was fruitless, he desisted and sat down, in a state of complete exhaustion. A reaction began to set in after the furious excitement of the afternoon, and he felt all at once that it would be impossible for him to make another step or raise his arm to strike. A man less sound originally in bodily constitution would have broken down sooner, and it was a proof of Israel Kafka's extraordinary vigour and energy that he did not lose his senses in a delirious fever at the moment when he felt that his strength could bear no further strain.
But his thoughts, such as they were, did not lack clearness. He saw that his opportunity was gone, and he began to think of the future, wondering what would take place next. Assuredly when he had come to Unorna's house with the fixed determination to take her life, the last thing that he had expected had been to be taken prisoner and left to his own meditations. It was clear that the Wanderer's warning had been conveyed without loss of time and had saved Unorna from her immediate fate. Nevertheless, he did not regret having given her the opportunity of defending herself. He had not meant that there should be any secret about the deed, for he was ready to sacrifice his own life in executing it.
Yet he was not altogether brave. He had neither Unorna's innate indifference to physical danger, nor the Wanderer's calm superiority to fear. He would not have made a good soldier, and he could not have faced another man's pistol at fifteen paces without experiencing a mental and bodily commotion not unlike terror, which he might or might not have concealed from others, but which would in any case have been painfully apparent to himself.
It is a noticeable fact in human nature that a man of even ordinary courage will at any time, when under excitement, risk his life rather than his happiness. Moreover, an immense number of individuals, naturally far from brave, destroy their own lives yearly in the moment when all chances of happiness are temporarily eclipsed. The inference seems to be that mankind, on the whole, values happiness more highly than life. The proportion of suicides from so-called "honourable motives" is small as compared with the many committed out of despair.
Israel Kafka's case was by no means a rare one. The fact of having been made to play a part which to him seemed at once blasphemous and ignoble had indeed turned the scale, but was not the motive. In all things, the final touch which destroys the balance is commonly mistaken for the force which has originally produced a state of unstable equilibrium, whereas there is very often no connection between the one and the other. The Moravian himself believed that the sacrifice of Unorna, and of himself afterwards, was to be an expiation of the outrage Unorna had put upon his faith in his own person. He had merely seized upon the first excuse which presented itself for ending all, because he was in reality past hope.
We have, as yet, no absolute test of sanity, as we have of fever in the body and of many other unnatural conditions of the human organism. The only approximately accurate judgments in the patient's favour are obtained from examinations into the relative consecutiveness and consistency of thought in the individual examined, when the whole tendency of that thought is towards an end conceivably approvable by a majority of men. A great many philosophers and thinkers have accordingly been pronounced insane at one period of history and have been held up as models of sanity at another. The most immediately destructive consequences of individual reasoning on a limited scale, murder and suicide, have been successively regarded as heroic acts, as criminal deeds, and as the deplorable but explicable actions of irresponsible beings in consecutive ages of violence, strict law and humanitarianism. It seems to be believed that the combination of murder and suicide is more commonly observed under the last of the three reigns than it was under the first; it was undoubtedly least common under the second. In other words it appears probable that the practice of considering certain crimes as the result of insanity has a tendency to make those crimes increase in number, as they undoubtedly increase in barbarity, from year to year. Meanwhile, however, no definite conclusion has been reached as to the state of mind of a man who murders the woman he loves and then ends his own life.
Israel Kafka may therefore be regarded as mad or sane. In favour of the theory of his madness the total uselessness of the deed he contemplated may be adduced; on the other hand the extremely consecutive and consistent nature of his thoughts and actions gives evidence of his sanity.
When he found himself a prisoner in Unorna's conservatory, his intention underwent no change though his body was broken with fatigue and his nerves with the long continued strain of a terrible excitement. His determination was as cool and as fixed as ever.
These somewhat dry reflections seem necessary to the understanding of what followed.
The key turned in the lock and the bolt was slipped back. Instantly Israel Kafka's energy returned. He rose quickly and hid himself in the shrubbery, in a position from which he could observe the door. He had seen Unorna enter before and had of course heard her cry before the Wanderer had carried her away, and he had believed that she had wished to face him, either with the intention of throwing herself upon his mercy or in the hope of dominating him with her eyes as she had so often done before. Of course, he had no means of knowing that she had already left the house. He imagined that the Wanderer had gone and that Unorna, being freed from his restraint, was about to enter the place again. The door opened and the three men came in. Kafka's first idea, on seeing himself disappointed, was that they had come to take him into custody, and his first impulse was to elude them.
The Wanderer entered first, tall, stately, indifferent, the quick glance of his deep eyes alone betraying that he was looking for some one. Next came Keyork Arabian, muffled still in his furs, turning his head sharply from side to side in the midst of the sable collar that half buried it, and evidently nervous. Last of all the Individual, who had divested himself of his outer coat and whose powerful proportions did not escape Israel Kafka's observation. It was clear that if there were a struggle it could have but one issue. Kafka would be overpowered. His knowledge of the disposition of the plants and trees offered him a hope of escape. The three men had entered the conservatory, and if he could reach the door before they noticed him, he could lock it upon them, as it had been locked upon himself. He could hear their footsteps on the marble pavement very near him, and he caught glimpses of their moving figures through the thick leaves.
With cat-like tread he glided along in the shadows of the foliage until he could see the door. From the entrance an open way was left in a straight line towards the middle of the hall, down which his pursuers were still slowly walking. He must cross an open space in the line of their vision in order to get out, and he calculated the distance to be traversed, while listening to their movements, until he felt sure that they were so far from the door as not to be able to reach him. Then he made his attempt, darting across the smooth pavement with his knife in his hand. There was no one in the way.
Then came a violent shock and he was held as in a vice, so tightly that he could not believe himself in the arms of a human being. His captors had anticipated that he would try to escape and has posted the Individual in the shadow of a tree near the doorway. The deaf and dumb man had received his instructions by means of a couple of quick signs, and not a whisper had betrayed the measures taken. Kafka struggled desperately, for he was within three feet of the door and still believed an escape possible. He tried to strike behind him with his sharp blade of which a single touch would have severed muscle and sinew like silk threads, but the bear-like embrace seemed to confine his whole body, his arms and even his wrists. Then he felt himself turned round and the Individual pushed him towards the middle of the hall. The Wanderer was advancing quickly, and Keyork Arabian, who had again fallen behind, peered at Kafka from behind his tall companion with a grotesque expression in which bodily fear and a desire to laugh at the captive were strongly intermingled.
"It is of no use to resist," said the Wanderer quietly. "We are too strong for you."
Kafka said nothing, but his bloodshot eyes glared up angrily at the tall man's face.
"He looks dangerous, and he still has that thing in his hand," said Keyork Arabian. "I think I will give him ether at once while the Individual holds him. Perhaps you could do it."
"You will do nothing of the kind," the Wanderer answered. "What a coward you are, Keyork!" he added contemptuously.
Going to Kafka's side he took him by the wrist of the hand which held the knife. But Kafka still clutched it firmly.
"You had better give it up," he said.
Kafka shook his head angrily and set his teeth, but the Wanderer unclasped the fingers by quiet force and took the weapon away. He handed it to Keyork, who breathed a sigh of relief as he looked at it, smiling at last, and holding his head on one side.
"To think," he soliloquised, "that an inch of such pretty stuff as Damascus steel, in the right place, can draw the sharp red line between time and eternity!"
He put the knife tenderly away in the bosom of his fur coat. His whole manner changed and he came forward with his usual, almost jaunty step.
"And now that you are quite harmless, my dear friend," he said, addressing Israel Kafka, "I hope to make you see the folly of your ways. I suppose you know that you are quite mad and that the proper place for you is a lunatic asylum."
The Wanderer laid his hand heavily upon Keyork's shoulder.
"Remember what I told you," he said sternly. "He will be reasonable now. Make your fellow understand that he is to let him go."
"Better shut the door first," said Keyork, suiting the action to the word and then coming back.
"Make haste!" said the Wanderer with impatience. "The man is ill, whether he is mad or not."
Released at last from the Individual's iron grip, Israel Kafka staggered a little. The Wanderer took him kindly by the arm, supporting his steps and leading him to a seat. Kafka glanced suspiciously at him and at the other two, but seemed unable to make any further effort and sank back with a low groan. His face grew pale and his eyelids drooped.
"Get some wine--something to restore him," the Wanderer said.
Keyork looked at the Moravian critically for a moment.
"Yes," he assented, "he is more exhausted than I thought. He is not very dangerous now." Then he went in search of what was needed. The Individual retired to a distance and stood looking on with folded arms.
"Do you hear me?" asked the Wanderer, speaking gently. "Do you understand what I say?"
Israel Kafka nodded, but said nothing.
"You are very ill. This foolish idea that has possessed you this evening comes from your illness. Will you go away quietly with me, and make no resistance, so that I may take care of you?"
This time there was not even a movement of the head.
"This is merely a passing thing," the Wanderer continued in a tone of quiet encouragement. "You have been feverish and excited, and I daresay you have been too much alone of late. If you will come with me, I will take care of you, and see that all is well."
"I told you that I would kill her--and I will," said Israel Kafka, faintly but distinctly.
"You will not kill her," answered his companion. "I will prevent you from attempting it, and as soon as you are well you will see the absurdity of the idea."
Israel Kafka made an impatient gesture, feeble but sufficiently expressive. Then all at once his limbs relaxed, and his head fell forward upon his breast. The Wanderer started to his feet and moved him into a more comfortable position. There were one or two quickly drawn breaths and the breathing ceased altogether. At that moment Keyork returned carrying a bottle of wine and a glass.
"It is too late," said the Wanderer gravely. "Israel Kafka is dead."
"Dead!" exclaimed Keyork, setting down what he had in his hands, and hastening to examine the unfortunate man's face and eyes. "The Individual squeezed him a little too hard, I suppose," he added, applying his ear to the region of the heart, and moving his head about a little as he did so.
"I hate men who make statements about things they do not understand," he said viciously, looking up as he spoke, but without any expression of satisfaction. "He is no more dead than you are--the greater pity! It would have been so convenient. It is nothing but a slight syncope-- probably the result of poorness of blood and an over-excited state of the nervous system. Help me to lay him on his back. You ought to have known that was the only thing to do. Put a cushion under his head. There--he will come to himself presently, but he will not be so dangerous as he was."
The Wanderer drew a long breath of relief as he helped Keyork to make the necessary arrangements.
"How long will it last?" he inquired.
"How can I tell?" returned Keyork sharply. "Have you never heard of a syncope? Do you know nothing about anything?"
He had produced a bottle containing some very strong salt and was applying it to the unconscious man's nostrils. The Wanderer paid no attention to his irritable temper and stood looking on. A long time passed and yet the Moravian gave no further signs of consciousness.
"It is clear that he cannot stay here if he is to be seriously ill," the Wanderer said.
"And it is equally clear that he cannot be taken away," retorted Keyork.
"You seem to be in a very combative frame of mind," the other answered, sitting down and looking at his watch. "If you cannot revive him, he ought to be brought to more comfortable quarters for the night."
"In his present condition--of course," said Keyork with a sneer.
"Do you think he would be in danger on the way?"
"I never think--I know," snarled the sage.
The Wanderer showed a slight surprise at the roughness of the answer, but said nothing, contenting himself with watching the proceedings keenly. He was by no means past suspecting that Keyork might apply some medicine the very reverse of reviving, if left to himself. For the present there seemed to be no danger. The pungent smell of salts of ammonia pervaded the place; but the Wanderer knew that Keyork had a bottle of ether in the pocket of his coat, and he rightly judged that a very little of that would put an end to the life that was hanging in the balance. Nearly half an hour passed before either spoke again. Then Keyork looked up. This time his voice was smooth and persuasive. His irritability had all disappeared.
"You must be tired," he said. "Why do you not go home? Or else go to my house and wait for us. The Individual and I can take care of him very well."
"Thanks," replied the Wanderer with a slight smile. "I am not in the least tired, and I prefer to stay where I am. I am not hindering you, I believe."
Now Keyork Arabian had no interest in allowing Israel Kafka to die, though the Wanderer half believed that he had, though he could not imagine what that interest might be. The little man was in reality on the track of an experiment, and he knew very well that so long as he was so narrowly watched it would be quite impossible to try it. In spite of his sneers at his companion's ignorance, he was aware that the latter knew enough to make every effort conducive to reviving the patient if left to himself, and he submitted with a bad grace to doing what he would rather have left undone.
He would have wished to let the flame of life sink yet lower before making it brighten again, for he had with him a preparation which he had been carrying in his pocket for months in the hope of accidentally happening upon just such a case as the present, and he longed for an opportunity of trying it. But to give it a fair trial he wished to apply it at the precise point when, according to all previous experience, the moment of death was past--the moment when the physician usually puts his watch in his pocket and looks about for his hat. Possibly if Kafka, being left without any assistance, had shown no further signs of sinking, Keyork would have helped him to sink a little lower. To produce this much-desired result, he had nothing with him but the ether, of which the Wanderer of course knew the smell and understood the effects. He saw the chances of making the experiment upon an excellent subject slipping away before his eyes and he grew more angry in proportion as they seemed farther removed.
"He is a little better," he said discontentedly, after another long interval of silence.
The Wanderer bent down and saw that the eyelids were quivering and that the face was less deathly livid than before. Then the eyes opened and stared dreamily at the glass roof.
"And I will," said the faint, weak voice, as though completing a sentence.
"I think not," observed Keyork, as though answering. "The people who do what they mean to do are not always talking about will." But Kafka had closed his eyes again.
This time, however, his breathing was apparent and he was evidently returning to a conscious state. The Wanderer arranged the pillow more comfortably under his head and covered him with his own furs. Keyork, relinquishing all hopes of trying the experiment at present, poured a little wine down his throat.
"Do you think we can take him home to-night?" inquired the Wanderer.
He was prepared for an ill-tempered answer, but not for what Keyork actually said. The little man got upon his feet and coolly buttoned his coat.
"I think not," he replied. "There is nothing to be done but to keep him quiet. Good-night. I am tired of all this nonsense, and I do not mean to lose my night's rest for all the Israels in Jewry--or all the Jews in Israel. You can stay with him if you please."
Thereupon he turned on his heel, making a sign to the Individual, who had not moved from his place since Kafka had lost consciousness, and who immediately followed his master.
"I will come and see to him in the morning," said Keyork carelessly, as he disappeared from sight among the plants.
The Wanderer's long-suffering temper was roused and his eyes gleamed angrily as he looked after the departing sage.
"Hound!" he exclaimed in a very audible voice.
He hardly knew why he was so angry with the man who called himself his friend. Keyork had behaved no worse than an ordinary doctor, for he had stayed until the danger was over and had promised to come again in the morning. It was his cool way of disclaiming all further responsibility and of avoiding all further trouble which elicited the Wanderer's resentment, as well as the unpleasant position in which the latter found himself.
He had certainly not anticipated being left in charge of a sick man-- and that sick man Israel Kafka--in Unorna's house for the whole night, and he did not enjoy the prospect. The mere detail of having to give some explanation to the servants, who would doubtless come before long to extinguish the lights, was far from pleasant. Moreover, though Keyork had declared the patient out of danger, there seemed no absolute certainty that a relapse would not take place before morning, and Kafka might actually lay in the certainty--delusive enough--that Unorna could not return until the following day.
He did not dare to take upon himself the responsibility of calling some one to help him and of removing the Moravian in his present condition. The man was still very weak and either altogether unconscious, or sleeping the sleep of exhaustion. The weather, too, was bitterly cold, and the exposure to the night air might bring on immediate and fatal consequences. He examined Kafka closely and came to the conclusion that he was really asleep. To wake him would be absolutely cruel as well as dangerous. He looked kindly at the weary face and then began to walk up and down between the plants, coming back at the end of every turn to look again and assure himself that no change had taken place.
After some time he began to wonder at the total silence in the house, or, rather, the silence which was carefully provided for in the conservatory impressed itself upon him for the first time. It was strange, he thought, that no one came to put out the lamps. He thought of looking out into the vestibule beyond, to see whether the lights were still burning there. To his great surprise he found the door securely fastened. Keyork Arabian had undoubtedly locked him in, and to all intents and purposes he was a prisoner. He suspected some treachery, but in this he was mistaken. Keyork's sole intention had been to insure himself from being disturbed in the course of the night by a second visit from the Wanderer, accompanied perhaps by Kafka. It immediately occurred to the Wanderer that he could ring the bell. But disliking the idea of entering into an explanation, he reserved that for an emergency. Had he attempted it he would have been still further surprised to find that it would have produced no result. In going through the vestibule Keyork had used Kafka's sharp knife to cut one of the slender silk-covered copper wires which passed out of the conservatory on that side, communicating with the servants' quarters. He was perfectly acquainted with all such details of the household arrangement.
Keyork's precautions were in reality useless and they merely illustrate the ruthlessly selfish character of the man. The Wanderer would in all probability neither have attempted to leave the house with Kafka that night, nor to communicate with the servants, even if he had been left free to do either, and if no one had disturbed him in his watch. He was disturbed, however, and very unexpectedly, between half-past one and a quarter to two in the morning.
More than once he had remained seated for a long time, but his eyes were growing heavy and he roused himself and walked again until he was thoroughly awake. It was certainly true that of all the persons concerned in the events of the day, except Keyork, he had undergone the least bodily fatigue and mental excitement. But even to the strongest, the hours of the night spent in watching by a sick person seem endless when there is no really strong personal anxiety felt. He was undoubtedly interested in Kafka's fate, and was resolved to protect him as well as to hinder him from committing any act of folly. But he had only met him for the first time that very afternoon, and under circumstances which had not in the first instance suggested even the possibility of a friendship between the two. His position towards Israel Kafka was altogether unexpected, and what he felt was no more than pity for his sufferings and indignation against those who had caused them.
When the door was suddenly opened, he stood still in his walk and faced it. He hardly recognised Unorna in the pale, dishevelled woman with circled eyes who came towards him under the bright light. She, too, stood still when she saw him, starting suddenly. She seemed to be very cold, for she shivered visibly and her teeth were chattering. Without the least protection against the bitter night air she had fled bareheaded and cloakless through the open streets from the church to her home.
"You here!" she exclaimed, in an unsteady voice.
"Yes, I am still here," answered the Wanderer. "But I hardly expected you to come back to-night," he added.
At the sound of his voice a strange smile came into her wan face and lingered there. She had not thought to hear him speak again, kindly or unkindly, for she had come with the fixed determination to meet her death at Israel Kafka's hands and to let that be the end. Amid all the wild thoughts that had whirled through her brain as she ran home in the dark, that one had not once changed.
"And Israel Kafka?" she asked, almost timidly.
"He is there--asleep."
Unorna came forward and the Wanderer showed her where the man lay upon a thick carpet, wrapped in furs, his pale head supported by a cushion.
"He is very ill," she said, almost under her breath. "Tell me what has happened."
It was like a dream to her. The tremendous excitement of what had happened in the convent had cut her off from the realisation of what had gone before. Strange as it seemed even to herself, she scarcely comprehended the intimate connection between the two series of events, nor the bearing of the one upon the other. Israel Kafka sank into such insignificance that she had began to pity his condition, and it was hard to remember that the Wanderer was the man whom Beatrice had loved, and of whom she had spoken so long and so passionately. She found, too, an unreasoned joy in being once more by his side, no matter under what conditions. In that happiness, one-sided and unshared, she forgot everything else. Beatrice had been a dream, a vision, an unreal shadow. Kafka was nothing to her, and yet everything, as she suddenly saw, since he constituted a bond between her and the man she loved, which would at least outlast the night. In a flash she saw that the Wanderer would not leave her alone with the Moravian, and that the latter could not be moved for the present without danger to his life. They must watch together by his side through the long hours. Who could tell what the night would bring forth?
As the new development of the situation presented itself, the colour rose again to her cheeks. The warmth of the conservatory, too, dispelled the chill that had penetrated her, and the familiar odours of the flowers contributed to restore the lost equilibrium of mind and body.
"Tell me what has happened," she said again.
In the fewest possible words the Wanderer told her all that had occurred up to the moment of her coming, not omitting the detail of the locked door.
"And for what reason do you suppose that Keyork shut you in?" she asked.
"I do not know," the Wanderer answered. "I do not trust him, though I have known him so long."
"It was mere selfishness," said Unorna scornfully. "I know him better than you do. He was afraid you would disturb him again in the night."
The Wanderer said nothing, wondering how any man could be so elaborately thoughtful of his own comfort.
"There is no help for it," Unorna said, "we must watch together."
"I see no other way," the Wanderer answered indifferently.
He placed a chair for her to sit in, within sight of the sick man, and took one himself, wondering at the strange situation, and yet not caring to ask Unorna what had brought her back, so breathless and so pale, at such an hour. He believed, not unnaturally, that her motive had been either anxiety for himself, or the irresistible longing to see him again, coupled with a distrust of his promise to return when she should send for him. It seemed best to accept her appearance without question, lest an inquiry should lead to a fresh outburst, more unbearable now than before, since there seemed to be no way of leaving the house without exposing her to danger. A nervous man like Israel Kafka might spring up at any moment and do something dangerous.
After they had taken their places the silence lasted some moments.
"You did not believe all I told you this evening?" said Unorna softly, with an interrogation in her voice.
"No," the Wanderer answered quietly, "I did not."
"I am glad of that--I was mad when I spoke."