The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
Unorna was left alone with the Wanderer. His attitude did not change, his eyes did not open, as she stood before him. Still he wore the look which had at first attracted Keyork Arabian's attention and which had amazed Unorna herself. It was the expression that had come into his face in the old cemetery when in his sleep she had spoken to him of love.
"He is dreaming of her," Unorna said to herself again, as she turned sadly away.
But since Keyork had been with her a doubt had assailed her which painfully disturbed her thoughts, so that her brow contracted with anxiety and from time to time she drew a quick hard breath. Keyork had taken it for granted that the Wanderer's sleep was not natural.
She tried to recall what had happened shortly before dawn but it was no wonder that her memory served her ill and refused to bring back distinctly the words she had spoken. Her whole being was unsettled and shaken, so that she found it hard to recognise herself. The stormy hours through which she had lived since yesterday had left their trace; the lack of rest, instead of producing physical exhaustion, had brought about an excessive mental weariness, and it was not easy for her now to find all the connecting links between her actions. Then, above all else, there was the great revulsion that had swept over her after her last and greatest plan of evil had failed, causing in her such a change as could hardly have seemed natural or even possible to a calm person watching her inmost thoughts.
And yet such sudden changes take place daily in the world of crime and passion. In one uncalled-for confession, of which it is hard to trace the smallest reasonable cause, the intricate wickednesses of a lifetime are revealed and repeated; in the mysterious impulse of a moment the murderer turns back and delivers himself to justice; under an influence for which there is often no accounting, the woman who has sinned securely through long years lays bare her guilt and throws herself upon the mercy of the man whom she has so skilfully and consistently deceived. We know the fact. The reason we cannot know. Perhaps, to natures not wholly bad, sin is a poison of which the moral organization can only bear a certain fixed amount, great or small, before rejecting it altogether and with loathing. We do not know. We speak of the workings of conscience, not understanding what we mean. It is like that subtle something which we call electricity; we can play with it, command it, lead it, neutralise it and die of it, make light and heat with it, or language and sound, kill with it and cure with it, while absolutely ignorant of its nature. We are no nearer to a definition of it than the Greek who rubbed a bit of amber and lifted with it a tiny straw, and from amber, Elektron called the something electricity. Are we even as near as that to a definition of the human conscience?
The change that had come over Unorna, whether it was to be lasting or not, was profound. The circumstances under which it took place are plain enough. The reasons must be left to themselves--it remains only to tell the consequences which thereon followed.
The first of these was a hatred of that extraordinary power with which nature had endowed her, which brought with it a determination never again to make use of it for any evil purpose, and, if possible, never even for good.
But as though her unhappy fate were for ever fighting against her good impulses, that power of hers had exerted itself unconsciously, since her resolution had been formed. Keyork Arabian's words, and his evident though unspoken disbelief in her denial, showed that he at least was convinced of the fact that the Wanderer was not sleeping a natural sleep. Unorna tried to recall what she had done and said, but all was vague and indistinct. Of one thing she was sure. She had not laid her hand upon his forehead, and she had not intentionally done any of those things which she had always believed necessary for producing the results of hypnotism. She had not willed him to do anything, she thought and she felt sure that she had pronounced no words of the nature of a command. Step by step she tried to reconstruct for her comfort a detailed recollection of what had passed, but every effort in that direction was fruitless. Like many men far wiser than herself, she believed in the mechanics of hypnotic science, in the touches, in the passes, in the fixed look, in the will to fascinate. More than once Keyork Arabian had scoffed at what he called her superstitions, and had maintained that all the varying phenomena of hypnotism, all the witchcraft of the darker ages, all the visions undoubtedly shown to wondering eyes by mediaeval sorcerers, were traceable to moral influence, and to no other cause. Unorna could not accept his reasoning. For her there was a deeper and yet a more material mystery in it, as in her own life, a mystery which she cherished as an inheritance, which impressed her with a sense of her own strange destiny and of the gulf which separated her from other women. She could not detach herself from the idea that the supernatural played a part in all her doings, and she clung to the use of gestures and passes and words in the exercise of her art, in which she fancied a hidden and secret meaning to exist. Certain things had especially impressed her. The not uncommon answer of hypnotics to the question concerning their identity, "I am the image in your eyes," is undoubtedly elicited by the fact that their extraordinarily acute and, perhaps, magnifying vision, perceives the image of themselves in the eyes of the operator with abnormal distinctness, and, not impossibly, of a size quite incompatible with the dimensions of the pupil. To Unorna the answer meant something more. It suggested the actual presence of the person she was influencing, in her own brain, and whenever she was undertaking anything especially difficult, she endeavoured to obtain the reply relating to the image as soon as possible.
In the present case, she was sure that she had done none of the things which she considered necessary to produce a definite result. She was totally unconscious of having impressed upon the sleeper any suggestion of her will. Whatever she had said, she had addressed the words to herself without any intention that they should be heard and understood.
These reflections comforted her as she paced the marble floor, and yet Keyork's remark rang in her ears and disturbed her. She knew how vast his experience was and how much he could tell by a single glance at a human face. He had been familiar with every phase of hypnotism long before she had known him, and might reasonably be supposed to know by inspection whether the sleep were natural or not. That a person hypnotised may appear to sleep as naturally as one not under the influence is certain, but the condition of rest is also very often different, to a practised eye, from that of ordinary slumber. There is a fixity in the expression of the face, and in the attitude of the body, which cannot continue under ordinary circumstances. He had perhaps noticed both signs in the Wanderer.
She went back to his side and looked at him intently. She had scarcely dared to do so before, and she felt that she might have been mistaken. The light, too, had changed, for it was broad day, though the lamps were still burning. Yet, even now, she could not tell. Her judgment of what she saw was disturbed by many intertwining thoughts.
At least, he was happy. Whatever she had done, if she had done anything, it had not hurt him. There was no possibility of misinterpreting the sleeping man's expression.
She wished that he would wake, though she knew how the smile would fade, how the features would grow cold and indifferent, and how the grey eyes she loved would open with a look of annoyance at seeing her before him. It was like a vision of happiness in a house of sorrow to see him lying there, so happy in his sleep, so loving, so peaceful. She could make it all to last, too, if she would, and she realised that with a sudden pang. The woman of whom he dreamed, whom he had loved so faithfully and sought so long, was very near him. A word from Unorna and Beatrice could come and find him as he lay asleep, and herself open the dear eyes.
Was that sacrifice to be asked of her before she was taken away to the expiation of her sins? Fate could not be so very cruel--and yet the mere idea was an added suffering. The longer she looked at him the more the possibility grew and tortured her.
After all, it was almost certain that they would meet now, and at the meeting she felt sure that all his memory would return. Why should she do anything, why should she raise her hand, to bring them to each other? It was too much to ask. Was it not enough that both were free, and both in the same city together, and that she had vowed neither to hurt nor hinder them? If it was their destiny to be joined together it would so happen surely in the natural course; if not, was it her part to join them? The punishment of her sins, whatever it should be, she could bear; but this thing she could not do.
She passed her hand across her eyes as though to drive it away, and her thoughts came back to the point from which they had started. The suspense became unbearable when she realised that she did not know in what condition the Wanderer would wake, nor whether, if left to nature, he would wake at all. She could not endure it any longer. She touched his sleeve, lightly at first, and then more heavily. She moved his arm. It was passive in her hand and lay where she placed it. Yet she would not believe that she had made him sleep. She drew back and looked at him. Then her anxiety overcame her.
"Wake!" she cried, aloud. "For God's sake, wake! I cannot bear it!"
His eyes opened at the sound of her voice, naturally and quietly. Then they grew wide and deep and fixed themselves in a great wonder of many seconds. Then Unorna saw no more.
Strong arms lifted her suddenly from her feet and pressed her fiercely and carried her, and she hid her face. A voice she knew sounded, as she had never heard it sound, nor hoped to hear it.
"Beatrice!" it cried, and nothing more.
In the presence of that strength, in the ringing of that cry, Unorna was helpless. She had no power of thought left in her, as she felt herself borne along, body and soul, in the rush of a passion more masterful than her own.
Then she was on her feet again, but his arms were round her still, and hers, whether she would or not, were clasped about his neck. Dreams, truth, faith kept or broken, hell and Heaven itself were swept away, all wrecked together in the tide of love. And through it all his voice was in her ear.
"Love, love, at last! From all the years, you have come back--at last --at last!"
Broken and almost void of sense the words came then, through the storm of his kisses and the tempest of her tears. She could no more resist him nor draw herself away than the frail ship, wind-driven through crashing waves, can turn and face the blast; no more than the long dry grass can turn and quench the roaring flame; no more than the drooping willow bough can dam the torrent and force it backwards up the steep mountain side.
In those short, false moments, Unorna knew what happiness could mean. Torn from herself, lifted high above the misery and the darkness of her real life, it was all true to her. There was no other Beatrice but herself, no other woman whom he had ever loved. An enchantment greater than her own was upon her and held her in bonds she could neither bend nor break.
She was sitting in her own chair now and he was kneeling before her, holding her hands and looking up to her. For him the world held nothing else. For him her hair was black as night; for him the unlike eyes were dark and fathomless; for him the heavy marble hand was light, responsive, delicate; for him her face was the face of Beatrice, as he had last seen it long ago. The years had passed, indeed, and he had sought her through many lands, but she had come back to him the same, in the glory of her youth, in the strength of her love, in the divinity of her dark beauty, his always, through it all, his now--for ever.
For a long time he did not speak. The words rose to his lips and failed of utterance, as the first mist of early morning is drawn heavenwards to vanish in the rising sun. The long-drawn breath could have made no sound of sweeter meaning than the unspoken speech that rose in the deep gray eyes. Nature's grand organ, touched by hands divine, can yield no chord more moving than a lover's sigh.
Words came at last, as after the welcome shower in summer's heat the song of birds rings through the woods, and out across the fields, upon the clear, earth-scented air--words fresh from their long rest within his heart, unused in years of loneliness but unforgotten and familiar still--untarnished jewels from the inmost depths; rich treasures from the storehouse of a deathless faith; diamonds of truth, rubies of passion, pearls of devotion studding the golden links of the chain of love.
"At last--at last--at last! Life of my life, the day is come that is not day without you, and now it will always be day for us two--day without end and sun for ever! And yet, I have seen you always in my night, just as I see you now. As I hold your dear hands, I have held them--day by day and year by year--and I have smoothed that black hair of yours that I love, and kissed those dark eyes of yours many and many a thousand times. It has been so long, love, so very long! But I knew it would come some day. I knew I should find you, for you have been always with me, dear--always and everywhere. The world is all full of you, for I have wandered through it all and taken you with me and made every place yours with the thought of you, and the love of you and the worship of you. For me, there is not an ocean nor a sea nor a river, nor rock nor island nor broad continent of earth, that has not known Beatrice and loved her name. Heart of my heart, soul of my soul--the nights and the days without you, the lands and the oceans where you were not, the endlessness of this little world that hid you somewhere, the littleness of the whole universe without you--how can you ever know what it has been to me? And so it is gone at last--gone as a dream of sickness in the morning of health; gone as the blackness of storm-clouds in the sweep of the clear west wind; gone as the shadow of evil before the face of an angel of light! And I know it all. I see it all in your eyes. You knew I was true, and you knew I sought you, and would find you at last--and you have waited--and there has been no other, not the thought of another, not the passing image of another between us. For I know there has not been that and I should have known it anywhere in all these years, the chill of it would have found me, the sharpness of it would have been in my heart--no matter where, no matter how far--yet say it, say it once--say that you have loved me, too--"
"God knows how I have loved you--how I love you now!" Unorna said in a low, unsteady voice.
The light that had been in his face grew brighter still as she spoke, while she looked at him, wondering, her head thrown back against the high chair, her eyelids wet and drooping, her lips still parted, her hand in his. Small wonder if he had loved her for herself, she was so beautiful. Small wonder it would have been if she had taken Beatrice's place in his heart during those weeks of close and daily converse. But that first great love had left no fertile ground in which to plant another seed, no warmth of kindness under which the tender shoot might grow to strength, no room beneath its heaven for other branches than its own. Alone it had stood in majesty as a lordly tree, straight, tall, and ever green, on a silent mountain top. Alone it had borne the burden of grief's heavy snows; unbent, for all its loneliness, it had stood against the raging tempest; and green still, in all its giant strength of stem and branch, in all its kingly robe of unwithered foliage. Unscathed, unshaken, it yet stood. Neither storm nor lightning, wind nor rain, sun nor snow had prevailed against it to dry it up and cast it down that another might grow in its place.
Yet this love was not for her to whom he spoke, and she knew it as she answered him, though she answered truly, from the fulness of her heart. She had cast an enchantment over him unwittingly, and she was taken in the toils of her own magic even as she had sworn that she would never again put forth her powers. She shuddered as she realised it all. In a few short moments she had felt his kisses, and heard his words, and been clasped to his heart, as she had many a time madly hoped. But in those moments, too, she had known the truth of her woman's instinct when it had told her that love must be for herself and for her own sake, or not be love at all.
The falseness, the fathomless untruth of it, would have been bad enough alone. But the truth that was so strong made it horrible. Had she but inspired in him a burning love for herself, however much against his will, it would have been very different. She would have heard her name from his lips, she would have known that all, however false, however artificial, was for herself, while it might last. To know that it was real, and not for her, was intolerable. To see this love of his break out at last--this other love which she had dreaded, against which she had fought, which she had met with a jealousy as strong as itself, and struggled with and buried under an imposed forgetfulness--to feel its great waves surging around her and beating up against her heart, was more than she could bear. Her face grew whiter and her hands were cold. She dreaded each moment lest he should call her Beatrice again, and say that her fair hair was black and that he loved those deep dark eyes of hers.
There had been one moment of happiness, in that first kiss, in the first pressure of those strong arms. Then night descended. The hands that held her had not been yet unclasped, the kiss was not cold upon her cheek, the first great cry of his love had hardly died away in a softened echo, and her punishment was upon her. His words were lashes, his touch poison, his eyes avenging fires. As in nature's great alchemy the diamond and the blackened coal are one, as nature with the same elements pours life and death from the same vial with the same hand, so now the love which would have been life to Unorna was made worse than death because it was not for her.
Yet the disguise was terribly perfect. The unconscious spell had done its work thoroughly. He took her for Beatrice, and her voice for Beatrice's there in the broad light, in the familiar place where he had so often talked with her for hours and known her for Unorna. But a few paces away was the very spot where she had fallen at his feet last night and wept and abused herself before him. There was the carpet on which Israel Kafka had lain throughout the long hours while they had watched together. Upon that table at her side a book lay which they had read together but two days ago. In her own chair she sat, Unorna still, unchanged, unaltered save for him. She doubted her own senses as she heard him speak, and ever and again the name of Beatrice rang in her ears. He looked at her hands, and knew them; at her black dress, and knew it for her own, and yet he poured out the eloquence of his love--kneeling, then standing, then sitting at her side, drawing her head to his shoulder and smoothing her fair hair--so black to him --with a gentle hand. She was passive through it all, as yet. There seemed to be no other way. He paused sometimes, then spoke again. Perhaps, in the dream that possessed him, he heard her speak. Possibly, he was unconscious of her silence, borne along by the torrent of his own long pent-up speech. She could not tell, she did not care to know. Of one thing alone she thought, of how to escape from it all and be alone.
She feared to move, still more to rise, not knowing what he would do. As he was now, she could not tell what effect her words would have if she spoke. It might be but a passing state after all. What would the awakening be? Would his forgetfulness of Beatrice and his coldness to herself return with the subsidence of his passion? Far better that than to see him and hear him as he was now.
And yet there were moments now and then when he pronounced no name, when he recalled no memory of the past, when there was only the tenderness of love itself in his words, and then, as she listened, she could almost think it was for her. It was bitter joy, unreal and fantastic, but it was a relief. Had she loved him less, such a conflict between sense and senses would have been impossible even in imagination. But she loved him greatly and the deep desire to be loved in turn was in her still, shaming her better thoughts, but sometimes ruling her in spite of herself and of the pain she suffered with each word self-applied. All the vast contradictions, all the measureless inconsistency, all the enormous selfishness of which human hearts are capable, had met in hers as in a battle-ground, fighting each other, rending what they found of herself amongst them, sometimes uniting to throw their whole weight together against the deep-rooted passion, sometimes taking side with it to drive out every other rival.
It was shameful, base, despicable, and she knew it. A moment ago she had longed to tear herself away, to silence him, to stop her ears, anything not to hear those words that cut like whips and stung like scorpions. And now again she was listening for the next, eagerly, breathlessly, drunk with their sound and revelling almost in the unreality of the happiness they brought. More and more she despised herself as the intervals between one pang of suffering and the next grew longer, and the illusion deeper and more like reality.
After all, it was he, and no other. It was the man she loved who was pouring out his own love into her ears, and smoothing her hair and pressing the hand he held. Had he not said it once, and more than once? What matter where, what matter how, provided that he loved? She had received the fulfilment of her wish. He loved her now. Under another name, in a vision, with another face and another voice, yet, still, she was herself.
As in a storm the thunder-claps came crashing through the air, deafening and appalling at first, then rolling swiftly into a far distance, fainter and fainter, till all is still and only the plash of the fast-falling rain is heard, so, as she listened, the tempest of her pain was passing away. Easier and easier it became to hear herself called Beatrice, easier and easier it grew to take the other's place, to accept the kiss, the touch, the word, the pressure of the hand that were all another's due, and given to herself only for the mask she wore in his dream.
And the tide of the great temptation rose, and fell a little, and rose higher again each time, till it washed the fragile feet of the last good thought that lingered, taking refuge on the highest point above the waves. On and on it came, receding and coming back, higher and higher, surer and surer. Had she drawn back in time it would have been so easy. Had she turned and fled when the first moment of senseless joy was over, when she could still feel all the shame, and blush for all the abasement, it would have been over now, and she would have been safe. But she had learned to look upon the advancing water, and the sound of it had no more terror for her. It was very high now. Presently it would climb higher and close above her head.
There were long intervals of silence now. The first rush of his speech had spent itself, for he had told her much and she had heard it all, even through the mists of her changing moods. And now that he was silent she longed to hear him speak again. She could never weary of that voice. It had been music to her in the days when it had been full of cold indifference--now each vibration roused high harmonies in her heart, each note was a full chord, and all the chords made but one great progression. She longed to hear it all again, wondering greatly how it could never have been not good to hear.
Then with the greater temptation came the less, enclosed within it, suddenly revealed to her. There was but one thing she hated in it all. That was the name. Would he not give her another--her own perhaps? She trembled as she thought of speaking. Would she still have Beatrice's voice? Might not her own break down the spell and destroy all at once? Yet she had spoken once before. She had told him that she loved him and he had not been undeceived.
"Beloved--" she said at last, lingering on the single word and then hesitating.
He looked into her face as he drew her to him, with happy eyes. She might speak, then, for he would hear tones not hers.
"Beloved, I am tired of my name. Will you not call me by another?" She spoke very softly.
"By another name?" he exclaimed, surprised, but smiling at what seemed a strange caprice.
"Yes. It is a sad name to me. It reminds me of many things--of a time that is better forgotten since it is gone. Will you do it for me? It will make it seem as though that time had never been."
"And yet I love your own name," he said, thoughtfully. "It is so much --or has been so much in all these years, when I had nothing but your name to love."
"Will you not do it? It is all I ask."
"Indeed I will, if you would rather have it so. Do you think there is anything that I would not do if you asked it of me?"
They were almost the words she had spoken to him that night when they were watching together by Israel Kafka's side. She recognised them and a strange thrill of triumph ran through her. What matter how? What matter where? The old reckless questions came to her mind again. If he loved her, and if he would but call her Unorna, what could it matter, indeed? Was she not herself? She smiled unconsciously.
"I see it pleases you," he said tenderly. "Let it be as you wish. What name will you choose for your dear self?"
She hesitated. She could not tell how far he might remember what was past. And yet, if he had remembered he would have seen where he was in the long time that had passed since his awakening.
"Did you ever--in your long travels--hear the name Unorna?" she asked with a smile and a little hesitation.
"Unorna? No. I cannot remember. It is a Bohemian word--it means 'she of February.' It has a pretty sound--half familiar to me. I wonder where I have heard it."
"Call me Unorna, then. It will remind us that you found me in February.