The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
After carefully locking and bolting the door of the sacristy Sister Paul turned to Beatrice. She had set down her lamp upon the broad, polished shelf which ran all round the place, forming the top of a continuous series of cupboards, as in most sacristies, used for the vestments of the church. At the back of these high presses rose half way to the spring of the vault.
The nun seemed a little nervous and her voice quavered oddly as she spoke. If she had tried to take up her lamp her hand would have shaken. In the moment of danger she had been brave and determined, but now that all was over her enfeebled strength felt the reaction from the strain. She turned to Beatrice and met her flashing black eyes. The young girl's delicate nostrils quivered and her lips curled fiercely.
"You are angry, my dear child," said Sister Paul. "So am I, and it seems to me that our anger is just enough. 'Be angry and sin not.' I think we can apply that to ourselves."
"Who is that woman?" Beatrice asked. She was certainly angry, as the nun had said, but she felt by no means sure that she could resist the temptation of sinning if it presented itself as the possibility of tearing Unorna to pieces.
"She was once with us," the nun answered. "I knew her when she was a mere girl--and I loved her then, in spite of her strange ways. But she has changed. They call her a Witch--and indeed I think it is the only name for her."
"I do not believe in witches," said Beatrice, a little scornfully. "But whatever she is, she is bad. I do not know what it was that she wanted me to do in the church, upon the altar there--it was something horrible. Thank God you came in time! What could it have been, I wonder?"
Sister Paul shook her head sorrowfully, but said nothing. She knew no more than Beatrice of Unorna's intention, but she believed in the existence of a Black Art, full of sacrilegious practices, and credited Unorna vaguely with the worst designs which she could think of, though in her goodness she was not able to imagine anything much worse than the saying of a Pater Noster backwards in a consecrated place. But she preferred to say nothing, lest she should judge Unorna unjustly. After all, she did not know. What she had seen had seemed bad enough and strange enough, but apart from the fact that Beatrice had been found upon the altar, where she certainly had no business to be, and that Unorna had acted like a guilty woman, there was little to lay hold of in the way of fact.
"My child," she said at last, "until we know more of the truth, and have better advice than we can give each other, let us not speak of it to any one of the sisters. In the morning I will tell all I have seen in confession, and then I shall get advice. Perhaps you should do the same. I know nothing of what happened before you left your room. Perhaps you have something to reproach yourself with. It is not for me to ask. Think it over."
"I will tell you the whole truth," Beatrice answered, resting her elbow upon the polished shelf and supporting her head in her hand, while she looked earnestly into Sister Paul's faded eyes.
"Think well, my daughter. I have no right to any confession from you. If there is anything----"
"Sister Paul--you are a woman, and I must have a woman's help. I have learned something to-night which will change my whole life. No--do not be afraid--I have done nothing wrong. At least, I hope not. While my father lived, I submitted. I hoped, but I gave no sign. I did not even write, as I once might have done. I have often wished that I had--was that wrong?"
"But you have told me nothing, dear child. How can I answer you?" The nun was perplexed.
"True. I will tell you. Sister Paul--I am five-and-twenty years old, I am a grown woman and this is no mere girl's love story. Seven years ago--I was only eighteen then--I was with my father as I have been ever since. My mother had not been dead long then--perhaps that is the reason why I seemed to be everything to my father. But they had not been happy together, and I had loved her best. We were travelling--no matter where--and then I met the man I have loved. He was not of our country--that is, of my father's. He was of the same people as my mother. Well--I loved him. How dearly you must guess, and try to understand. I could not tell you that. No one could. It began gradually, for he was often with us in those days. My father liked him for his wit, his learning, though he was young; for his strength and manliness--for a hundred reasons which were nothing to me. I would have loved him had he been a cripple, poor, ignorant, despised, instead of being what he was--the grandest, noblest man God ever made. For I did not love him for his face, nor for his courtly ways, nor for such gifts as other men might have, but for himself and for his heart --do you understand?"
"For his goodness," said Sister Paul, nodding in approval. "I understand."
"No," Beatrice answered, half impatiently. "Not for his goodness either. Many men are good, and so was he--he must have been, of course. No matter. I loved him. That is enough. He loved me, too. And one day we were alone, in the broad spring sun, upon a terrace. There were lemon trees there--I can see the place. Then we told each other that we loved--but neither of us could find the words--they must be somewhere, those strong beautiful words that could tell how we loved. We told each other--"
"Without your father's consent?" asked the nun almost severely.
Beatrice's eyes flashed. "Is a woman's heart a dog that must follow at heel?" she asked fiercely. "We loved. That was enough. My father had the power, but not the heart, to come between. We told him, then, for we were not cowards. We told him boldly that it must be. He was a thoughtful man, who spoke little. He said that we must part at once, before we loved each other better--and that we should soon forget. We looked at each other, the man I loved and I. We knew that we should love better yet, parted or together, though we could not tell how that could be. But we knew also that such love as there was between us was enough. My father gave no reasons, but I knew that he hated the name of my mother's nation. Of course we met again. I remember that I could cry in those days. My father had not learned to part us then. Perhaps he was not quite sure himself, at all events the parting did not come so soon. We told him that we would wait, for ever if it must be. He may have been touched, though little touched him at the best. Then, one day, suddenly and without warning, he took me away to another city. And what of him? I asked. He told me that there was an evil fever in the city and that it had seized him--the man I loved. "He is free to follow us if he pleases," said my father. But he never came. Then followed a journey, and another, and another, until I knew that my father was travelling to avoid him. When I saw that I grew silent, and never spoke his name again. Farther and farther, longer and longer, to the ends of the earth. We saw many people, many asked for my hand. Sometimes I heard of him, from men who had seen him lately. I waited patiently, for I knew that he was on our track, and sometimes I felt that he was near."
"It is a strange story," said Sister Paul, who had rarely heard a tale of love.
"The strange thing is this," Beatrice answered. "That woman--what is her name? Unorna? She loves him, and she knows where he is."
"Unorna?" repeated the nun in bewilderment.
"Yes. She met me after Compline to-night. I could not but speak to her, and then I was deceived. I cannot tell whether she knew what I am to him, but she deceived me utterly. She told me a strange story of her own life. I was lonely. In all those years I have never spoken of what has filled me. I cannot tell how it was. I began to speak, and then I forgot that she was there, and told all."
"She made you tell her, by her secret arts," said Sister Paul in a low voice.
"No--I was lonely and I believed that she was good, and I felt that I must speak. Then--I cannot think how I could have been so mad--but I thought that we should never meet again, and I showed her a likeness of him. She turned on me. I shall not forget her face. I heard her say that she knew him and loved him too. When I awoke I was lying on the altar. That is all I know."
"Her evil arts, her evil arts," repeated the nun, shaking her head. "Come, my dear child, let us see if all is in order there, upon the altar. If these things are to be known they must be told in the right quarter. The sacristan must not see that any one has been in the church."
Sister Paul took up the lamp, but Beatrice laid a hand upon her arm.
"You must help me to find him," she said firmly. "He is not far away."
Her companion looked at her in astonishment.
"Help you to find him?" she stammered. "But I cannot--I do not know--I am afraid it is not right--an affair of love--"
"An affair of life, Sister Paul, and of death too, perhaps. This woman lives in Prague. She is rich and must be well known--"
"Well known, indeed. Too well known--the Witch they call her."
"Then there are those who know her. Tell me the name of one person only--it is impossible that you should not remember some one who is acquainted with her, who has talked with you of her--perhaps one of the ladies who have been here in retreat."
The nun was silent for a moment, gathering her recollections.
"There is one, at least, who knows her," she said at length. "A great lady here--it is said that she, too, meddles with forbidden practices and that Unorna has often been with her--that together they have called up the spirits of the dead with strange rappings and writings. She knows her, I am sure, for I have talked with her and she says it is all natural, and that there is a learned man with them sometimes, who explains how all such things may happen in the course of nature--a man--let me see, let me see--it is George, I think, but not as we call it, not Jirgi, nor Jegor--no--it sounds harder--Ke-Keyrgi--no, Keyork --Keyork Aribi----"
"Keyork Arabian!" exclaimed Beatrice. "Is he here?"
"You know him?" Sister Paul looked almost suspiciously at the young girl.
"Indeed I do. He was with us in Egypt once. He showed us wonderful things among the tombs. A strange little man, who knew everything, but very amusing."
"I do not know. But that is his name. He lives in Prague."
"How can I find him? I must see him at once--he will help me."
The nun shook her head with disapproval.
"I should be sorry that you should talk with him," she said. "I fear he is no better than Unorna, and perhaps worse."
"You need not fear," Beatrice answered, with a scornful smile. "I am not in the least afraid. Only tell me how I am to find him. He lives here, you say--is there no directory in the convent?"
"I believe the portress keeps such a book," said Sister Paul still shaking her head uneasily. "But you must wait until the morning, my dear child, if you will do this thing. Of the two, I should say that you would do better to write to the lady. Come, we must be going. It is very late."
She had taken the lamp again and was moving slowly towards the door. Beatrice had no choice but to submit. It was evident that nothing more could be done at present. The two women went back into the church, and going round the high altar began to examine everything carefully. The only trace of disorder they could discover was the fallen candlestick, so massive and strong that it was not even bent or injured. They climbed the short wooden steps, and uniting their strength, set it up again, carefully and in its place, restoring the thick candle to the socket. Though broken in the middle by the fall, the heavy wax supported itself easily enough. Then they got down again and Sister Paul took away the steps. For a few moments both women knelt down before the altar.
They left the church by the nuns' staircase, bolting the door behind them, and ascended to the corridors and reached Beatrice's room. Unorna's door was open, as the nun had left it, and the yellow light streamed upon the pavement. She went in and extinguished the lamp, and then came back to Beatrice.
"Are you not afraid to be alone after what has happened?" she asked.
"Afraid? Of what? No, indeed." Then she thanked her companion again and kissed Sister Paul's waxen cheek.
"Say a prayer, my daughter--and may all be well with you, now and ever!" said the good sister as she went away through the darkness. She needed no light in the familiar way to her cell.
Beatrice searched among her numerous belongings and at last brought out a writing-case. Then she sat down to her table by the light of the lamp that had illuminated so many strange sights that night.
She wrote the name of the convent clearly upon the paper, and then wrote a plain message in the fewest possible words. Something of her strong, devoted nature showed itself in her handwriting.
She had reasons of her own for believing that Keyork had not forgotten her in the five years or more since they had been in Egypt together. Apart from the fact that his memory had always been surprisingly good, he had at that time professed the most unbounded admiration for her, and she remembered with a smile his quaint devotion, his fantastic courtesy, and his gnome-like attempts at grace.
She folded the note, to wait for the address which she could not ascertain until the morning. She could do nothing more. It was nearly two o'clock and there was evidently nothing to be done but to sleep.
As she laid her head upon the pillow a few minutes later she was amazed at her own calm. Strong natures, in great tests, often surprise themselves far more than they surprise others. Others see the results, always simpler in proportion as they are greater. But the actors themselves alone know how hard the great and simple can seem.
Beatrice's calmness was not only of the outward kind at the present moment. She felt that she was alone in the world, and that she had taken her life into her own hands. Fate had lent her the clue of her happiness at last and she would hold it firmly to the end. It would be time enough then to open the flood-gates. It would have been unlike her to dwell long upon the thought of Unorna or to give way to any passionate outbreak of hatred. Why should Unorna not love him? The whole world loved him, and small wonder. She feared no rival.
But he was near her now. Her heart leaped as she realised how very near he might well be, then sank again to its calm beating. He had been near her a score of times in the past years, and yet they had not met. But she had not been free, then, as she was now. There was more hope than before, but she could not delude herself with any belief in a certainty.
So thinking, and so saying to herself, she fell asleep, and slept soundly without dreaming as most people do who are young and strong, and who are clear-headed and active when they are awake.
It was late when she opened her eyes, and the broad cold light filled the room. She lost no time in thinking over the events of the night, for everything was fresh in her memory. Half dressed, she wrapped about her a cloak that came down to her feet, and throwing a black veil over her hair she went down to the portress's lodge. In five minutes she had found Keyork's address and had despatched one of the convent gardeners with the note. Then she leisurely returned to her room and set about completing her toilet. She naturally supposed that an hour or two must elapse before she received an answer, certainly before Keyork appeared in person, a fact which showed that she had forgotten something of the man's characteristics.
Twenty minutes had scarcely passed, and she had not finished dressing when Sister Paul entered the room, evidently in a state of considerable anxiety. As has been seen, it chanced to be her turn to superintend the guest's quarters at that time, and the portress had of course informed her immediately of Keyork's coming, in order that she might tell Beatrice.
"He is there!" she said, as she came in.
Beatrice was standing before the little mirror that hung upon the wall, trying, under no small difficulties, to arrange her hair. He turned her head quickly.
"Who is there? Keyork Arabian?"
Sister Paul nodded, glad that she was not obliged to pronounce the name that had for her such an unChristian sound.
"Where is he? I did not think he could come so soon. Oh, Sister Paul, do help me with my hair! I cannot make it stay."
"He is in the parlour, down stairs," answered the nun, coming to her assistance. "Indeed, child, I do not see how I can help you." She touched the black coils ineffectually. "There! Is that better?" she asked in a timid way. "I do not know how to do it--"
"No, no!" Beatrice exclaimed. "Hold that end--so--now turn it that way--no, the other way--it is in the glass--so--now keep it there while I put in a pin--no, no--in the same place, but the other way-- oh, Sister Paul! Did you never do your hair when you were a girl?"
"That was so long ago," answered the nun meekly. "Let me try again."
The result was passably satisfactory at last, and assuredly not wanting in the element of novelty.
"Are you not afraid to go alone?" asked Sister Paul with evident preoccupation, as Beatrice put a few more touches to her toilet.
But the young girl only laughed and made the more haste. Sister Paul walked with her to the head of the stairs, wishing that the rules would allow her to accompany Beatrice into the parlour. Then as the latter went down the nun stood at the top looking after her and audibly repeating prayers for her preservation.
The convent parlour was a large, bare room, lighted by a high and grated window. Plain, straight, modern chairs were ranged against the wall at regular intervals. There was no table, but a square piece of green carpet lay upon the middle of the stone pavement. A richly ornamented glazed earthenware stove, in which a fire had just been lighted, occupied one corner, a remnant of former aesthetic taste and strangely out of place since the old carved furniture was gone. A crucifix of inferior workmanship and realistically painted hung opposite the door. The place was reserved for the use of ladies in retreat and was situated outside the constantly closed door which shut off the cloistered part of the convent from the small portion accessible to outsiders.
Keyork Arabian was standing in the middle of the parlour waiting for Beatrice. When she entered at last he made two steps forward, bowing profoundly, and then smiled in a deferential manner.
"My dear lady," he said, "I am here. I have lost no time. It so happened that I received your note just as I was leaving my carriage after a morning drive. I had no idea that you were in Bohemia."
"Thanks. It was good of you to come so soon."
She sat down upon one of the stiff chairs and motioned to him to follow her example.
"And your dear father--how is he?" inquired Keyork with suave politeness, as he took his seat.
"My father died a week ago," said Beatrice gravely.
Keyork's face assumed all the expression of which it was capable. "I am deeply grieved," he said, moderating his huge voice to a soft and purring sub-bass. "He was an old and valued friend."
There was a moment's silence. Keyork, who knew many things, was well aware that a silent feud, of which he also knew the cause, had existed between father and daughter when he had last been with them, and he rightly judged from his knowledge of their obstinate characters that it had lasted to the end. He thought therefore that his expression of sympathy had been sufficient and could pass muster.
"I asked you to come," said Beatrice at last, "because I wanted your help in a matter of importance to myself. I understand that you know a person who calls herself Unorna, and who lives here."
Keyork's bright blue eyes scrutinized her face. He wondered how much she knew.
"Very well indeed," he answered, as though not at all surprised.
"You know something of her life, then. I suppose you see her very often, do you not?"
"Daily, I can almost say."
"Have you any objection to answering one question about her?"
"Twenty if you ask them, and if I know the answers," said Keyork, wondering what form the question would take, and preparing to meet a surprise with indifference.
"But will you answer me truly?"
"My dear lady, I pledge you my sacred word of honour," Keyork answered with immense gravity, meeting her eyes and laying his hand upon his heart.
"Does she love that man--or not?" Beatrice asked, suddenly showing him the little miniature of the Wanderer, which she had taken from its case and had hitherto concealed in her hand.
She watched every line of his face for she knew something of him, and in reality put very little more faith in his word of honour than he did himself, which was not saying much. But she had counted upon surprising him, and she succeeded, to a certain extent. His answer did not come as glibly as he could have wished, though his plan was soon formed.
"Who is it! Ah, dear me! My old friend. We call him the Wanderer. Well, Unorna certainly knew him when he was here."
"Then he is gone?"
"Indeed, I am not quite sure," said Keyork, regaining all his self- possession. "Of course I can find out for you, if you wish to know. But as regards Unorna, I can tell you nothing. They were a good deal together at one time. I fancy he was consulting her. You have heard that she is a clairvoyant, I daresay."
He made the last remark quite carelessly, as though he attached no importance to the fact.
"Then you do not know whether she loves him?"
Keyork indulged himself with a little discreet laughter, deep and musical.
"Love is a very vague word," he said presently.
"Is it?" Beatrice asked, with some coldness.
"To me, at least," Keyork hastened to say, as though somewhat confused. "But, of course, I can know very little about it in myself, and nothing about it in others."
Not knowing how matters might turn out, he was willing to leave Beatrice with a suspicion of the truth, while denying all knowledge of it.
"You know him yourself, of course," Beatrice suggested.
"I have known him for years--oh, yes, for him, I can answer. He was not in the least in love."
"I did not ask that question," said Beatrice rather haughtily. "I knew he was not."
"Of course, of course. I beg your pardon!"
Keyork was learning more from her than she from him. It was true that she took no trouble to conceal her interest in the Wanderer and his doings.
"Are you sure that he has left the city?" Beatrice asked.
"No, I am not positive. I could not say with certainty."
"When did you see him last?"
"Within the week, I am quite sure," Keyork answered with alacrity.
"Do you know where he was staying?"
"I have not the least idea," the little man replied, without the slightest hesitation. "We met at first by chance in the Teyn Kirche, one afternoon--it was a Sunday, I remember, about a month ago."
"A month ago--on a Sunday," Beatrice repeated thoughtfully.
"Yes--I think it was New Year's Day, too."
"Strange," she said. "I was in the church that very morning, with my maid. I had been ill for several days--I remember how cold it was. Strange--the same day."
"Yes," said Keyork, noting the words, but appearing to take no notice of them. "I was looking at Tycho Brahe's monument. You know how it annoys me to forget anything--there was a word in the inscription which I could not recall. I turned round and saw him sitting just at the end of the pew nearest to the monument."
"The old red slab with a figure on it, by the last pillar?" Beatrice asked eagerly.
"Exactly. I daresay you know the church very well. You remember that the pew runs very near to the monument so that there is hardly room to pass."
She was thinking that it could hardly have been a mere accident which had led the Wanderer to take the very seat she had occupied on the morning of that day. He must have seen her during the Mass, but she could not imagine how he could have missed her. They had been very near then. And now, a whole month had passed, and Keyork Arabian professed not to know whether the Wanderer was still in the city or not.
"Then you wish to be informed of our friend's movements, as I understand it?" said Keyork going back to the main point.
"Yes--what happened on that day?" Beatrice asked, for she wished to hear more.
"Oh, on that day? Yes. Well, nothing happened worth mentioning. We talked a little and went out of the church and walked a little way together. I forget when we met next, but I have seen him at least a dozen times since then, I am sure."
Beatrice began to understand that Keyork had no intention of giving her any further information. She reflected that she had learned much in this interview. The Wanderer had been, and perhaps still was, in Prague. Unorna loved him and they had been frequently together. He had been in the Teyn Kirche on the day she had last been there herself, and in all probability he had seen her, since he had chosen the very seat in which she had sat. Further, she gathered that Keyork had some interest in not speaking more frankly. She gave up the idea of examining him any further. He was a man not easily surprised, and it was only by means of a surprise that he could be induced to betray even by a passing expression what he meant to conceal. Her means of attack were exhausted for the present. She determined at least to repeat her request clearly before dismissing him, in the hope that it might suit his plans to fulfil it, but without the least trust in his sincerity.
"Will you be so kind as to make some inquiry, and let me know the result to-day?" she asked.
"I will do everything to give you an early answer," said Keyork. "And I shall be the more anxious to obtain one without delay in order that I may have the very great pleasure of visiting you again. There is much that I would like to ask you, if you would allow me. For old friends, as I trust I may say that we are, you must admit that we have exchanged few--very few--confidences this morning. May I come again to-day? It would be an immense privilege to talk of old times with you, of our friends in Egypt and of our many journeys. For you have no doubt travelled much since then. Your dear father," he lowered his voice reverentially, "was a great traveller, as well as a very learned man. Ah, well, my dear lady--we must all make up our minds to undertake that great journey one of these days. But I pain you. I was very much attached to your dear father. Command all my service. I will come again in the course of the day."
With many sympathetic smiles and half-comic inclinations of his short, broad body, the little man bowed himself out.