The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
The Wanderer was not inclined to deny the statement which accorded well enough with his total disbelief of the story Unorna had told him. But he did not answer her immediately, for he found himself in a very difficult position. He would neither do anything in the least discourteous beyond admitting frankly that he had not believed her, when she taxed him with incredulity; nor would say anything which might serve her as a stepping-stone for returning to the original situation. He was, perhaps, inclined to blame her somewhat less than at first, and her changed manner in speaking of Kafka somewhat encouraged his leniency. A man will forgive, or at least condone, much harshness to others when he is thoroughly aware that it has been exhibited out of love for himself; and a man of the Wanderer's character cannot help feeling a sort of chivalrous respect and delicate forbearance for a woman who loves him sincerely, though against his will, while he will avoid with an almost exaggerated prudence the least word which could be interpreted as an expression of reciprocal tenderness. He runs the risk, at the same time, of being thrust into the ridiculous position of the man who, though young, assumes the manner and speech of age and delivers himself of grave, paternal advice to one who looks upon him, not as an elder, but as her chosen mate.
After Unorna had spoken, the Wanderer, therefore, held his peace. He inclined his head a little, as though to admit that her plea of madness might not be wholly imaginary; but he said nothing. He sat looking at Israel Kafka's sleeping face and outstretched form, inwardly wondering whether the hours would seem very long before Keyork Arabian returned in the morning and put an end to the situation. Unorna waited in vain for some response, and at last spoke again.
"Yes," she said, "I was mad. You cannot understand it. I daresay you cannot even understand how I can speak of it now, and yet I cannot help speaking."
Her manner was more natural and quiet than it had been since the moment of Kafka's appearance in the cemetery. The Wanderer noticed the tone. There was an element of real sadness in it, with a leaven of bitter disappointment and a savour of heartfelt contrition. She was in earnest now, as she had been before, but in a different way. He could hardly refuse her a word in answer.
"Unorna," he said gravely, "remember that you are leaving me no choice. I cannot leave you alone with that poor fellow, and so, whatever you wish to say, I must hear. But it would be much better to say nothing about what has happened this evening--better for you and for me. Neither men nor women always mean exactly what they say. We are not angels. Is it not best to let the matter drop?"
Unorna listened quietly, her eyes upon his face.
"You are not so hard with me as you were," she said thoughtfully, after a moment's hesitation, and there was a touch of gratitude in her voice. As she felt the dim possibility of a return to her former relations of friendship with him, Beatrice and the scene in the church seemed to be very far away. Again the Wanderer found it difficult to answer.
"It is not for me to be hard, as you call it," he said quietly. There was a scarcely perceptible smile on his face, brought there not by any feeling of satisfaction, but by his sense of his own almost laughable perplexity. He saw that he was very near being driven to the ridiculous necessity of giving her some advice of the paternal kind. "It is not for me, either, to talk to you of what you have done to Israel Kafka to-day," he confessed. "Do not oblige me to say anything about it. It will be much safer. You know it all better than I do, and you understand your own reasons, as I never can. If you are sorry for him now, so much the better--you will not hurt him any more if you can help it. If you will say that much about the future I shall be very glad, I confess."
"Do you think that there is anything which I will not do--if you ask it?" Unorna asked very earnestly.
"I do not know," the Wanderer answered, trying to seem to ignore the meaning conveyed by her tone. "Some things are harder to do than others----"
"Ask me the hardest!" she exclaimed. "Ask me to tell you the whole truth----"
"No," he said firmly, in the hope of checking an outburst of passionate speech. "What you have thought and done is no concern of mine. If you have done anything that you are sorry for, without my knowledge, I do not wish to know of it. I have seen you do many good and kind acts during the last month, and I would rather leave those memories untouched as far as possible. You may have had an object in doing them which in itself was bad. I do not care. The deeds were good. Take credit for them and let me give you credit for them. That will do neither of us any harm."
"I could tell you--if you would let me--"
"Do not tell me," he interrupted. "I repeat that I do not wish to know. The one thing that I have seen is bad enough. Let that be all. Do you not see that? Besides, I am myself the cause of it in a measure --unwilling enough, Heaven knows!"
"The only cause," said Unorna bitterly.
"Then I am in some way responsible. I am not quite without blame--we men never are in such cases. If I reproach you, I must reproach myself as well--"
"Reproach yourself!--ah no! What can you say against yourself?" she could not keep the love out of her voice, if she would; her bitterness had been for herself.
"I will not go into that," he answered. "I am to blame in one way or another. Let us say no more about it. Will you let the matter rest?"
"And let bygones be bygones, and be friends to each other, as we were this morning?" she asked, with a ray of hope.
The Wanderer was silent for a few seconds. His difficulties were increasing. A while ago he had told her, as an excuse for herself, that men and women did not always mean exactly what they said, and even now he did not set himself up in his own mind as an exception to the rule. Very honourable and truthful men do not act upon any set of principles in regard to truth and honour. Their instinctively brave actions and naturally noble truthfulness make those principles which are held up to the unworthy for imitation, by those whose business is the teaching of what is good. The Wanderer's only hesitation lay between answering the question or not answering it.
"Shall we be friends again?" Unorna asked a second time, in a low tone. "Shall we go back to the beginning?"
"I do not see how that is possible," he answered slowly.
Unorna was not like him, and did not understand such a nature as his as she understood Keyork Arabian. She had believed that he would at least hold out some hope.
"You might have spared me that!" she said, turning her face away. There were tears in her voice.
A few hours earlier his answer would have brought fire to her eyes and anger to her voice. But a real change had come over her, not lasting, perhaps, but strong in its immediate effects.
"Not even a little friendship left?" she said, breaking the silence that followed.
"I cannot change myself," he answered, almost wishing that he could. "I ought, perhaps," he added, as though speaking to himself. "I have done enough harm as it is."
"Harm? To whom?" She looked round suddenly and he saw the moisture in her eyes.
"To him," he replied, glancing at Kafka, "and to you. You loved him once. I have ruined his life."
"Loved him? No--I never loved him." She shook her head, wondering whether she spoke the truth.
"You must have made him think so."
"I? No--he is mad." But she shrank before his honest look, and suddenly broke down. "No--I will not lie to you--you are too true-- yes, I loved him, or I thought I did, until you came, and I saw that there was no one----"
But she checked herself, as she felt the blood rising to her cheeks. She could blush still, and still be ashamed. Even she was not all bad, now that she was calm and that the change had come over her.
"You see," the Wanderer said gently, "I am to blame for it all."
"For it all? No--not for the thousandth part of it all. What blame have you in being what you are? Blame God in Heaven--for making such a man. Blame me for what you know; blame me for all that you will not let me tell you. Blame Kafka for his mad belief in me and Keyork Arabian for the rest--but do not blame yourself--oh, no! Not that!"
"Do not talk like that, Unorna," he said. "Be just first."
"What is justice?" she asked. Then she turned her head away again. "If you knew what justice means for me--you would not ask me to be just. You would be more merciful."
"You exaggerate----" He spoke kindly, but she interrupted him.
"No. You do not know, that is all. And you can never guess. There is only one man living who could imagine such things as I have done--and tried to do. He is Keyork Arabian. But he would have been wiser than I, perhaps."
She relapsed into silence. Before her rose the dim altar in the church, the shadowy figure of Beatrice standing up in the dark, the horrible sacrilege that was to have been done. Her face grew dark with fear of her own soul. The Wanderer went so far as to try and distract her from her gloomy thoughts, out of pure kindness of heart.
"I am no theologian," he said, "but I fancy that in the long reckoning the intention goes for more than the act."
"The intention!" she cried, looking back with a start. "If that be true----"
With a shudder she buried her face in her two hands, pressing them to her eyes as though to blind them to some awful sight. Then, with a short struggle, she turned to him again.
"There is no forgiveness for me in Heaven," she said. "Shall there be none on earth! Not even a little, from you to me?"
"There is no question of forgiveness between you and me. You have not injured me, but Israel Kafka. Judge for yourself which of us two, he or I, has anything to forgive. I am to-day what I was yesterday and may be to-morrow. He lies there, dying of his love for you, if ever a man died for love. And as though that were not enough, you have tortured him--well, I will not speak of it. But that is all. I know nothing of the deeds, or intentions, of which you accuse yourself. You are tired, overwrought, worn out with all this--what shall I say? It is natural enough, I suppose--"
"You say there is no question of forgiveness," she said, interrupting him, but speaking more calmly. "What is it then? What is the real question? If you have nothing to forgive why can we not be friends as we were before?"
"There is something besides that needed. It is not enough that of two people neither should have injured the other. You have broken something, destroyed something--I cannot mend it. I wish I could."
"You wish you could?" she repeated earnestly.
"I wish that the thing had not been done. I wish that I had not seen what I saw to-day. We should be where we were this morning--and he perhaps would not be here."
"It must have come some day," Unorna said. "He must have seen that I loved--that I loved you. Is there any use in not speaking plainly now? Then at some other time, in some other place, he would have done what he did, and I should have been angry and cruel--for it is my nature to be cruel when I am angry, and to be angry easily, at that. Men talk so easily of self-control, and self-command and dignity, and self- respect! They have not loved--that is all. I am not angry now, nor cruel. I am sorry for what I did, and I would undo it, if deeds were knots and wishes deeds. I am sorry, beyond all words to tell you. How poor it sounds now that I have said it! You do not even believe me."
"You are wrong. I know that you are in earnest."
"How do you know?" she asked bitterly. "Have I never lied to you? If you believed me, you would forgive me. If you forgave me, your friendship would come back. I cannot even swear to you that I am telling the truth. Heaven would not be my witness now if I told a thousand truths, each truer than the last."
"I have nothing to forgive," the Wanderer said, almost wearily. "I have told you so, you have not injured me, but him."
"But if it meant a whole world to me--no, for I am nothing to you--but if it cost you nothing, but the little breath that can carry the three words--would you say it? Is it much to say? Is it like saying, I love you, or, I honour you, respect you? It is so little, and would mean so much."
"To me it can mean nothing, unless you ask me to forgive you deeds of which I know nothing. And then it means still less to me."
"Will you say it, only say the three words once?"
"I forgive you," said the Wanderer quietly. It cost him nothing, and, to him, meant less.
Unorna bent her head and was silent. It was something to have heard him say it though he could not guess the least of the sins which she made it include. She herself hardly knew why she had so insisted. Perhaps it was only the longing to hear words kind in themselves, if not in tone, nor in his meaning of them. Possibly, too, she felt a dim presentiment of her coming end, and would take with her that infinitesimal grain of pardon to the state in which she hoped for no other forgiveness.
"It was good of you to say it," she said at last.
A long silence followed during which the thoughts of each went their own way. Suddenly Israel Kafka stirred in his sleep. The Wanderer went quickly forward and knelt down beside him and arranged the silken pillow as best he could. Unorna was on the other side almost as soon. With a tenderness of expression and touch which nothing can describe she moved the sleeping head into a comfortable position and smoothed the cushion, and drew up the furs disturbed by the nervous hands. The Wanderer let her have her way. When she had finished their eyes met. He could not tell whether she was asking his approval and a word of encouragement, but he withheld neither.
"You are very gentle with him. He would thank you if he could."
"Did you not tell me to be kind to him?" she said. "I am keeping my word. But he would not thank me. He would kill me if he were awake."
The Wanderer shook his head.
"He was ill and mad with pain," he answered. "He did not know what he was doing. When he wakes, it will be different."
Unorna rose, and the Wanderer followed her.
"You cannot believe that I care," she said, as she resumed her seat. "He is not you. My soul would not be the nearer to peace for a word of his."
For a long time she sat quite still, her hands lying idly in her lap, her head bent wearily as though she bore a heavy burden.
"Can you not rest?" the Wanderer asked at length. "I can watch alone."
"No. I cannot rest. I shall never rest again."
The words came slowly, as though spoken to herself.
"Do you bid me go?" she asked after a time, looking up and seeing his eyes fixed on her.
"Bid you go? In your own house?" The tone was one of ordinary courtesy. Unorna smiled sadly.
"I would rather you struck me than that you spoke to me like that!" she exclaimed. "You have no need of such civil forbearance with me. If you bid me go, I will go. If you bid me stay, I will not move. Only speak frankly. Say which you would prefer."
"Then stay," said the Wanderer simply.
She bowed her head slightly and was silent again. A distant clock chimed the hour. The morning was slowly drawing near.
"And you," said Unorna, looking up at the sound. "Will you not rest? Why should you not sleep?"
"I am not tired."
"You do not trust me, I think," she answered sadly. "And yet you might --you might." Her voice died away dreamily.
"Trust you to watch that poor man? Indeed I do. You were not acting just now, when you touched him so tenderly. You are in earnest. You will be kind to him, and I thank you for it."
"And you yourself? Do you fear nothing from me, if you should sleep before my eyes? Do you not fear that in your unconsciousness I might touch you and make you more unconscious still and make you dream dreams and see visions?"
The Wanderer looked at her and smiled incredulously, partly out of scorn for the imaginary danger, and partly because something told him that she had changed and would not attempt any of her witchcraft upon him.
"No," he answered. "I am not afraid of that."
"You are right," she said gravely. "My sins are enough already. The evil is sufficient. Do as you will. If you can sleep, then sleep in peace. If you will watch, watch with me."
Then neither spoke again. Unorna bent her head as she had done before. The Wanderer leaned back resting comfortably against the cushion of the high carved chair, his eyes directed towards the place where Israel Kafka lay. The air was warm, the scent of the flowers sweet but not heavy. The silence was intense, for even the little fountain was still. He had watched almost all night and his eyelids drooped. He forgot Unorna and thought only of the sick man, trying to fix his attention on the pale head as it lay under the bright light.
When Unorna looked up at last she saw that he was asleep. At first she was surprised, in spite of what she had said to him half an hour earlier, for she herself could not have closed her eyes, and felt that she could never close them again. Then she sighed. It was but one proof more of his supreme indifference. He had not even cared to speak to her, and if she had not constantly spoken to him throughout the hours they had passed together he would perhaps have been sleeping long before now.
And yet she feared to wake him and was almost glad that he was unconscious. In the solitude she could gaze on him to her heart's desire, she could let her eyes look their fill, and no one could say her nay. He must be very tired, she thought, and she vaguely wondered why she felt no bodily weariness, when her soul was so heavy.
She sat still and watched him. It might be the last time, she thought, for who could tell what would happen to-morrow? She shuddered as she thought of it all. What would Beatrice do? What would Sister Paul say? How much would she tell of what she had seen? How much had she really seen which she could tell clearly? There were terrible possibilities in the future if all were known. Such deeds, and even the attempt at such deeds as she had tried to do, could be judged by the laws of the land, she might be brought to trial, if she lived, as a common prisoner, and held up to the execration of the world in all her shame and guilt. But death would be worse than that. As she thought of that other Judgment, she grew dizzy with horror as she had been when the idea had first entered her brain.
Then she was conscious that she was again looking at the Wanderer as he lay back asleep in his tall chair. The pale and noble face expressed the stainless soul and the manly character. She saw in it the peace she had lost, and yet knew that through him she had lost her peace for ever.
It was perhaps the last time. Never again, perhaps, after the morning had broken, should she look on what she loved best on earth. She would be gone, ruined, dead perhaps. And he? He would be still himself. He would remember her half carelessly, half in wonder, as a woman who had once been almost his friend. That would be all that would be left in him of her, beyond a memory of the repulsion he had felt for her deeds.
She fancied she could have met the worst in the future less hopelessly if he could have remembered her a little more kindly when all was over. Even now, it might be in her power to cast a veil upon the pictures in his mind. But the mere thought was horrible to her, though a few hours before she had hardly trembled at the doing of a frightful sacrilege. In that short time the humiliation of failure, the realisation of what she had almost done, above all the ever-rising tide of a real and passionate love, had swept away many familiar landmarks in her thoughts, and had turned much to lead which had once seemed brighter than gold. She hated the very idea of using again those arts which had so directly wrought her utter destruction. But she longed to know that in the world whither he would doubtless go to-morrow he would bear with him one kind memory of her, one natural friendly thought not grafted upon his mind by her power, but growing of its own self in his inmost heart. Only a friendly memory--nothing more than that.
She rose noiselessly and came to his side and looked down into his face. Very long she stood there, motionless as a statue, beautiful as a mourning angel.
It was so little that she asked. It was so little compared with all she had hoped, or in comparison with all she had demanded, so little in respect of what she had given. For she had given her soul. And in return she asked only for one small kindly thought when all should be over.
She bent down as she stood and touched his cool forehead with her lips.
"Sleep on, my beloved," she said in a voice that murmured softly and sadly.
She started a little at what she had done, and drew back, half afraid, like an innocent girl. But as though he had obeyed her words, he seemed to sleep more deeply still. He must be very tired, she thought, to sleep like that, but she was thankful that the soft kiss, the first and last, had not waked him.
"Sleep on," she said again in a whisper scarcely audible to herself. "Forget Unorna, if you cannot think of her mercifully and kindly. Sleep on, you have the right to rest, and I can never rest again. You have forgiven--forget, too, then, unless you can remember better things of me than I have deserved in your memory. Let her take her kingdom back. It was never mine--remember what you will, forget at least the wrong I did, and forgive the wrong you never knew--for you will know it surely some day. Ah, love--I love you so--dream but one dream, and let me think I take her place. She never loved you more than I, she never can. She would not have done what I have done. Dream only that I am Beatrice for this once. Then when you wake you will not think so cruelly of me. Oh, that I might be she--and you your loving self--that I might be she for one day in thought and word, in deed and voice, in face and soul! Dear love--you would never know it, yet I should know that you had had one loving thought for me. You would forget. It would not matter then to you, for you would have only dreamed, and I should have the certainty--for ever, to take with me always!"
As though the words carried a meaning with them to his sleeping senses, a look of supreme and almost heavenly happiness stole over his sleeping face. But Unorna could not see it. She had turned suddenly away, burying her face in her hands upon the back of her own chair.
"Are there no miracles left in Heaven?" she moaned, half whispering lest she should wake him. "Is there no miracle of deeds undone again and of forgiveness given--for me? God! God! That we should be for ever what we make ourselves!"
There were no tears in her eyes now, as there had been twice that night. In her despair, that fountain of relief, shallow always and not apt to overflow, was dried up and scorched with pain. And, for the time at least, worse things were gone from her, though she suffered more. As though some portion of her passionate wish had been fulfilled, she felt that she could never do again what she had done; she felt that she was truthful now as he was, and that she knew evil from good even as Beatrice knew it. The horror of her sins took new growth in her changed vision.
"Was I lost from the first beginning?" she asked passionately. "Was I born to be all I am, and fore-destined to do all I have done? Was she born an angel and I a devil from hell? What is it all? What is this life, and what is that other beyond it?"
Behind her, in his chair, the Wanderer still slept. Still his face wore the radiant look of joy that had so suddenly come into it as she turned away. He scarcely breathed, so calmly he slept. But Unorna did not raise her head nor look at him, and on the carpet near her feet Israel Kafka lay as still and as deeply unconscious as the Wanderer himself. By a strange destiny she sat there, between the two men in whom her whole life had been wrecked, and she alone was waking.
When she at last raised her eyes the dawn was breaking. Through the transparent roof of glass a cold gray light began to descend upon the warm, still brightness of the lamps. The shadows changed, the colours grew more cold, the dark nooks among the heavy foliage less black. Israel Kafka's face was ghostly and livid--the Wanderer's had the alabaster transparency that comes upon some strong men in sleep. Still, neither stirred. Unorna turned from the one and looked upon the other. For the first time she saw how he had changed, and wondered.
"How peacefully he sleeps!" she thought. "He is dreaming of her."
The dawn came stealing on, not soft and blushing as in southern lands, but cold, resistless and grim as ancient fate; not the maiden herald of the sun with rose-tipped fingers and grey, liquid eyes, but hard, cruel, sullen, and less darkness following upon a greater and going before a dull, sunless and heavy day.
The door opened somewhat noisily and a brisk step fell upon the marble pavement. Unorna rose noiselessly to her feet and hastening along the open space came face to face with Keyork Arabian. He stopped and looked up at her from beneath his heavy brows, with surprise and suspicion. She raised one finger to her lips.
"You here already?" he asked, obeying her gesture and speaking in a low voice.
"Hush! Hush!" she whispered, not satisfied. "They are asleep. You will wake them."
Keyork came forward. He could move quietly enough when he chose. He glanced at the Wanderer.
"He looks comfortable enough," he whispered, half contemptuously.
Then he bent down over Israel Kafka and carefully examined his face. To him the ghastly pallor meant nothing. It was but the natural result of excessive exhaustion.
"Put him into a lethargy," said he under his breath, but with authority in his manner.
Unorna shook her head. Keyork's small eyes brightened angrily.
"Do it," he said. "What is this caprice? Are you mad? I want to take his temperature without waking him."
Unorna folded her arms.
"Do you want him to suffer more?" asked Keyork with a diabolical smile. "If so I will wake him by all means; I am always at your service, you know."
"Will he suffer, if he wakes naturally?"
"Horribly--in the head."
Unorna knelt down and let her hand rest a few seconds on Kafka's brow. The features, drawn with pain, immediately relaxed.
"You have hypnotised the one," grumbled Keyork as he bent down again. "I cannot imagine why you should object to doing the same for the other."
"The other?" Unorna repeated in surprise.
"Our friend there, in the arm chair."
"It is not true. He fell asleep of himself."
Keyork smiled again, incredulously this time. He had already applied his pocket-thermometer and looked at his watch. Unorna had risen to her feet, disdaining to defend herself against the imputation expressed in his face. Some minutes passed in silence.
"He has no fever," said Keyork looking at the little instrument. "I will call the Individual and we will take him away."
"To his lodging, of course. Where else?" He turned and went towards the door.
In a moment, Unorna was kneeling again by Kafka's side, her hand upon his forehead, her lips close to his ear.
"This is the last time that I will use my power on you or upon any one," she said quickly, for the time was short. "Obey me, as you must. Do you understand me? Will you obey?"
"Yes," came the faint answer as from very far off.
"You will wake two hours from now. You will not forget all that has happened, but you will never love me again. I forbid you ever to love me again! Do you understand?"
"You will only forget that I have told you this, though you will obey. You will see me again, and if you can forgive me of your own free will, forgive me then. That must be of your own free will. Wake in two hours of yourself, without pain or sickness."
Again she touched his forehead and then sprang to her feet. Keyork was coming back with his dumb servant. At a sign, the Individual lifted Kafka from the floor, taking from him the Wanderer's furs and wrapping him in others which Keyork had brought. The strong man walked away with his burden as though he were carrying a child. Keyork Arabian lingered a moment.
"What made you come back so early?" he asked.
"I will not tell you," she answered, drawing back.
"No? Well, I am not curious. You have an excellent opportunity now."
"An opportunity?" Unorna repeated with a cold interrogative.
"Excellent," said the little man, standing on tiptoe to reach her ear, for she would not bend her head. "You have only to whisper into his ear that you are Beatrice and he will believe you for the rest of his life."
"Go!" said Unorna.
Though the word was not spoken above her breath it was fierce and commanding. Keyork Arabian smiled in an evil way, shrugged his shoulders and left her.