The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
Unorna drew one deep breath when she first heard her name fall with a loving accent from the Wanderer's lips. Surely the bitterness of despair was past since she was loved and not called Beatrice. The sigh that came then was of relief already felt, the forerunner, as she fancied, too, of a happiness no longer dimmed by shadows of fear and mists of rising remorse. Gazing into his eyes, she seemed to be watching in their reflection a magic change. She had been Beatrice to him, Unorna to herself, but now the transformation was at hand--now it was to come. For him she loved, and who loved her, she was Unorna even to the name, in her own thoughts she had taken the dark woman's face. She had risked all upon the chances of one throw and she had won. So long as he had called her by another's name the bitterness had been as gall mingled in the wine of love. But now that too was gone. She felt that it was complete at last. Her golden head sank peacefully upon his shoulder in the morning light.
"You have been long in coming, love," she said, only half consciously, "but you have come as I dreamed--it is perfect now. There is nothing wanting any more."
"It is all full, all real, all perfect," he answered, softly.
"And there is to be no more parting, now----"
"Neither here, nor afterwards, beloved."
"Then this is afterwards. Heaven has nothing more to give. What is Heaven? The meeting of those who love--as we have met. I have forgotten what it was to live before you came----"
"For me, there is nothing to remember between that day and this."
"That day when you fell ill," Unorna said, "the loneliness, the fear for you----"
Unorna scarcely knew that it had not been she who had parted from him so long ago. Yet she was playing a part, and in the semi-consciousness of her deep self-illusion it all seemed as real as a vision in a dream so often dreamed that it has become part of the dreamer's life. Those who fall by slow degrees under the power of the all-destroying opium remember yesterday as being very far, very long past, and recall faint memories of last year as though a century had lived and perished since then, seeing confusedly in their own lives the lives of others, and other existences in their own, until identity is almost gone in the endless transmigration of their souls from the shadow in one dream- tale to the wraith of themselves that dreams the next. So, in that hour, Unorna drifted through the changing scenes that a word had power to call up, scarce able, and wholly unwilling, to distinguish between her real and her imaginary self. What matter how? What matter where? The very questions which at first she had asked herself came now but faintly as out of an immeasurable distance, and always more faintly still. They died away in her ears, as when, after long waiting, and false starts, and turnings back and anxious words exchanged, the great race is at last begun, the swift long limbs are gathered and stretched and strained and gathered again, the thunder of flying hoofs is in the air, and the rider, with low hands, and head inclined and eyes bent forward, hears the last anxious word of parting counsel tremble and die in the rush of the wind behind.
She had really loved him throughout all those years; she had really sought him and mourned for him and longed for a sight of his face; they had really parted and had really found each other but a short hour since; there was no Beatrice but Unorna and no Unorna but Beatrice, for they were one and indivisible and interchangeable as the glance of a man's two eyes that look on one fair sight; each sees alone, the same--but seeing together, the sight grows doubly fair.
"And all the sadness, where is it now?" she asked. "And all the emptiness of that long time? It never was, my love--it was yesterday we met. We parted yesterday, to meet to-day. Say it was yesterday--the little word can undo seven years."
"It seems like yesterday," he answered.
"Indeed, I can almost think so, now, for it was all night between. But not quite dark, as night is sometimes. It was a night full of stars-- each star was a thought of you, that burned softly and showed me where heaven was. And darkest night, they say, means coming morning--so when the stars went out I knew the sun must rise."
The words fell from her lips naturally. To her it seemed true that she had indeed waited long and hoped and thought of him. And it was not all false. Ever since her childhood she had been told to wait, for her love would come and would come only once. And so it was true, and the dream grew sweeter and the illusion of the enchantment more enchanting still. For it was an enchantment and a spell that bound them together there, among the flowers, the drooping palms, the graceful tropic plants and the shadowy leaves. And still the day rose higher, but still the lamps burned on, fed by the silent, mysterious current that never tires, blending a real light with an unreal one, an emblem of Unorna's self, mixing and blending, too, with a self not hers.
"And the sun is risen, indeed," she added presently.
"Am I the sun, dear?" he asked, foretasting the delight of listening to her simple answer.
"You are the sun, beloved, and when you shine, my eyes can see nothing else in heaven."
"And what are you yourself--Beatrice--no, Unorna--is that the name you chose? It is so hard to remember anything when I look at you."
"Beatrice--Unorna--anything," came the answer, softly murmuring. "Anything, dear, any name, any face, any voice, if only I am I, and you are you, and we two love! Both, neither, anything--do the blessed souls in Paradise know their own names?"
"You are right--what does it matter? Why should you need a name at all, since I have you with me always? It was well once--it served me when I prayed for you--and it served to tell me that my heart was gold while you were there, as the goldsmith's mark upon his jewel stamps the pure metal, that all men may know it."
"You need no sign like that to show me what you are," said she, with a long glance.
"Nor I to tell me you are in my heart," he answered. "It was a foolish speech. Would you have me wise now?"
"If wisdom is love--yes. If not----" She laughed softly.
"Then folly, madness, anything--so that this last, as last it must, or I shall die!"
"And why should it not last? Is there any reason, in earth or Heaven, why we two should part? If there is--I will make that reason itself folly, and madness, and unreason. Dear, do not speak of this not lasting. Die, you say? Worse, far worse; as much as eternal death is worse than bodily dying. Last? Does any one know what for ever means, if we do not? Die, we must, in these dying bodies of ours, but part-- no. Love has burned the cruel sense out of that word, and bleached its blackness white. We wounded the devil, parting, with one kiss, we killed him with the next--this buries him--ah, love, how sweet----"
There was neither resistance nor the thought of resisting. Their lips met and were withdrawn only that their eyes might drink again the draught the lips had tasted, long draughts of sweetness and liquid light and love unfathomable. And in the interval of speech half false, the truth of what was all true welled up from the clear depths and overflowed the falseness, till it grew falser and more fleeting still --as a thing lying deep in a bright water casts up a distorted image on refracted rays.
Glance and kiss, when two love, are as body and soul, supremely human and transcendently divine. The look alone, when the lips cannot meet, is but the disembodied spirit, beautiful even in its sorrow, sad, despairing, saying "ever," and yet sighing "never," tasting and knowing all the bitterness of both. The kiss without the glance? The body without the soul? The mortal thing without the undying thought? Draw down the thick veil and hide the sight, lest devils sicken at it, and lest man should loathe himself for what man can be.
Truth or untruth, their love was real, hers as much as his. She remembered only what her heart had been without it. What her goal might be, now that it had come, she guessed even then, but she would not ask. Was there never a martyr in old times, more human than the rest, who turned back, for love perhaps, if not for fear, and said that for love's sake life still was sweet, and brought a milk-white dove to Aphrodite's altar, or dropped a rose before Demeter's feet? There must have been, for man is man, and woman, woman. And if in the next month, or even the next year, or after many years, that youth or maid took heart to bear a Christian's death, was there then no forgiveness, no sign of holy cross upon the sandstone in the deep labyrinth of graves, no crown, no sainthood, and no reverent memory of his name or hers among those of men and women worthier, perhaps, but not more suffering?
No one can kill Self. No one can be altogether another, save in the passing passion of a moment's acting. I--in that syllable lies the whole history of each human life; in that history lives the individuality; in the clear and true conception of that individuality dwells such joint foreknowledge of the future as we can have, such vague solution as to us is possible of that vast equation in which all quantities are unknown save that alone, that I which we know as we can know nothing else.
"Bury it!" she said. "Bury that parting--the thing, the word, and the thought--bury it with all others of its kind, with change, and old age, and stealing indifference, and growing coldness, and all that cankers love--bury them all, together, in one wide deep grave--then build on it the house of what we are--"
"Change? Indifference? I do not know those words," the Wanderer said. "Have they been in your dreams, love? They have never been in mine."
He spoke tenderly, but with the faintest echo of sadness in his voice. The mere suggestion that such thoughts could have been near her was enough to pain him. She was silent, and again her head lay upon his shoulder. She found there still the rest and the peace. Knowing her own life, the immensity of his faith and trust in that other woman were made clear by the simple, heartfelt words. If she had been indeed Beatrice, would he have loved her so? If it had all been true, the parting, the seven years' separation, the utter loneliness, the hopelessness, the despair, could she have been as true as he? In the stillness that followed she asked herself the question which was so near a greater and a deadlier one. But the answer came quickly. That, at least, she could have done. She could have been true to him, even to death. It must be so easy to be faithful when life was but one faith. In that chord at least no note rang false.
"Change in love--indifference to you!" she cried, all at once, hiding her lovely face in his breast and twining her arms about his neck. "No, no! I never meant that such things could be--they are but empty words, words one hears spoken lightly by lips that never spoke the truth, by men and women who never had such truth to speak as you and I."
"And as for old age," he said, dwelling upon her speech, "what is that to us? Let it come, since come it must. It is good to be young and fair and strong, but would not you or I give up all that for love's sake, each of us of our own free will, rather than lose the other's love?"
"Indeed, indeed I would!" Unorna answered.
"Then what of age? What is it after all? A few gray hairs, a wrinkle here and there, a slower step, perhaps a dimmer glance. That is all it is--the quiet, sunny channel between the sea of earthly joy and the ocean of heavenly happiness. The breeze of love still fills the sails, wafting us softly onward through the narrows, never failing, though it be softer and softer, till we glide out, scarce knowing it, upon the broader water and are borne swiftly away from the lost land by the first breath of heaven."
His words brought peace and the mirage of a far-off rest, that soothed again the little half-born doubt.
"Yes," she said. "It is better to think so. Then we need think of no other change."
"There is no other possible," he answered, gently pressing the shoulder upon which his hand was resting. "We have not waited and believed, and trusted and loved, for seven years, to wake at last-- face to face as we are to-day--and to find that we have trusted vainly and loved two shadows, I yours, and you mine, to find at the great moment of all that we are not ourselves, the selves we knew, but others of like passions but of less endurance. Have we, beloved? And if we could love, and trust, and believe without each other, each alone, is it not all the more sure that we shall be unchanging together? It must be so. The whole is greater than its parts, two loves together are greater and stronger than each could be of itself. The strength of two strands close twined together is more than twice the strength of each."
She said nothing. By merest chance he had said words that had waked the doubt again, so that it grew a little and took a firmer hold in her unwilling heart. To love a shadow, he had said, to wake and find self not self at all. That was what might come, would come, must come, sooner or later, said the doubt. What matter where, or when, or how? The question came again, vaguely, faintly as a mere memory, but confidently as though knowing its own answer. Had she not rested in his arms, and felt his kisses and heard his voice? What matter how, indeed? It matters greatly, said the growing doubt, rearing its head and finding speech at last. It matters greatly, it said, for love lies not alone in voice, and kiss, and gentle touch, but in things more enduring, which to endure must be sound and whole and not cankered to the core by a living lie. Then came the old reckless reasoning again: Am I not I? Is he not he? Do I not love him with my whole strength? Does he not love this very self of mine, here as it is, my head upon his shoulder, my hand within his hand? And if he once loved another, have I not her place, to have and hold, that I may be loved in her stead? Go, said the doubt, growing black and strong; go, for you are nothing to him but a figure in his dream, disguised in the lines of one he really loved and loves; go quickly, before it is too late, before that real Beatrice comes and wakes him and drives you out of the kingdom you usurp.
But she knew it was only a doubt, and had it been the truth, and had Beatrice's foot been on the threshold, she would not have been driven away by fear. But the fight had begun.
"Speak to me, dear," she said. "I must hear your voice--it makes me know that it is all real."
"How the minutes fly!" he exclaimed, smoothing her hair with his hand. "It seems to me that I was but just speaking when you spoke."
"It seems so long--" She checked herself, wondering whether an hour had passed or but a second.
Though love be swifter than the fleeting hours, doubt can outrun a lifetime in one beating of the heart.
"Then how divinely long it all may seem," he answered. "But can we not begin to think, and to make plans for to-morrow, and the next day, and for the years before us? That will make more time for us, for with the present we shall have the future, too. No--that is foolish again. And yet it is so hard to say which I would have. Shall the moment linger because it is so sweet? Or shall it be gone quickly, because the next is to be sweeter still? Love, where is your father?"
Unorna started. The question was suggested, perhaps, by his inclination to speak of what was to be done, but it fell suddenly upon her ears, as a peal of thunder when the sky has no clouds. Must she lie now, or break the spell? One word, at least, she could yet speak with truth.
"Dead!" the Wanderer repeated, thoughtfully and with a faint surprise. "Is it long ago, beloved?" he asked presently, in a subdued tone as though fearing to wake some painful memory.
"Yes," she answered. The great doubt was taking her heart in its strong hands now and tearing it, and twisting it.
"And whose house is this in which I have found you, darling? Was it his?"
"It is mine," Unorna said.
How long would he ask questions to which she could find true answers? What question would come next? There were so many he might ask and few to which she could reply so truthfully even in that narrow sense of truth which found its only meaning in a whim of chance. But for a moment he asked nothing more.
"Not mine," she said. "It is yours. You cannot take me and yet call anything mine."
"Ours, then, beloved. What does it matter? So he died long ago--poor man! And yet, it seems but a little while since some one told me--but that was a mistake, of course. He did not know. How many years may it be, dear one? I see you still wear mourning for him."
"No--that was but a fancy--to-day. He died--he died more than two years ago."
She bent her head. It was but a poor attempt at truth, a miserable lying truth to deceive herself with, but it seemed better than to lie the whole truth outright, and say that her father--Beatrice's father-- had been dead but just a week. The blood burned in her face. Brave natures, good and bad alike, hate falsehood, not for its wickedness, perhaps, but for its cowardice. She could do things as bad, far worse. She could lay her hand upon the forehead of a sleeping man and inspire in him a deep, unchangeable belief in something utterly untrue; but now, as it was, she was ashamed and hid her face.
"It is strange," he said, "how little men know of each other's lives or deaths. They told me he was alive last year. But it has hurt you to speak of it. Forgive me, dear, it was thoughtless of me."
He tried to lift her head, but she held it obstinately down.
"Have I pained you, Beatrice?" he asked, forgetting to call her by the other name that was so new to him.
"No--oh, no!" she exclaimed without looking up.
"What is it then?"
"Nothing--it is nothing--no, I will not look at you--I am ashamed." That at least was true.
"Ashamed, dear heart! Of what?"
He had seen her face in spite of herself. Lie, or lose all, said a voice within.
"Ashamed of being glad that--that I am free," she stammered, struggling on the very verge of the precipice.
"You may be glad of that, and yet be very sorry he is dead," the Wanderer said, stroking her hair.
It was true, and seemed quite simple. She wondered that she had not thought of that. Yet she felt that the man she loved, in all his nobility and honesty, was playing the tempter to her, though he could not know it. Deeper and deeper she sank, yet ever more conscious that she was sinking. Before him she felt no longer as loving woman to loving man--she was beginning to feel as a guilty prisoner before his judge.
He thought to turn the subject to a lighter strain. By chance he glanced at his own hand.
"Do you know this ring?" he asked, holding it before her, with a smile.
"Indeed, I know it," she answered, trembling again.
"You gave it to me, love, do you remember? And I gave you a likeness of myself, because you asked for it, though I would rather have given you something better. Have you it still?"
She was silent. Something was rising in her throat. Then she choked it down.
"I had it in my hand last night," she said in a breaking voice. True, once more.
"What is it, darling? Are you crying? This is no day for tears."
"I little thought that I should have yourself to-day," she tried to say.
Then the tears came, tears of shame, big, hot, slow. They fell upon his hand. She was weeping for joy, he thought. What else could any man think in such a case? He drew her to him, and pressed her cheek with his hand as her head nestled on his shoulder.
"When you put this ring on my finger, dear--so long ago----"
She sobbed aloud.
"No, darling--no, dear heart," he said, comforting her, "you must not cry--that long ago is over now and gone for ever. Do you remember that day, sweetheart, in the broad spring sun upon the terrace among the lemon trees. No, dear--your tears hurt me always, even when they are shed in happiness--no, dear, no. Rest there, let me dry your dear eyes --so and so. Again? For ever, if you will. While you have tears, I have kisses to dry them--it was so then, on that very day. I can remember. I can see it all--and you. You have not changed, love, in all those years, more than a blossom changes in one hour of a summer's day! You took this ring and put it on my finger. Do you remember what I said? I know the very words. I promised you--it needed no promise either--that it should never leave its place until you took it back-- and you--how well I remember your face--you said that you would take it from my hand some day, when all was well, when you should be free to give me another in its stead, and to take one in return. I have kept my word, beloved. Keep yours--I have brought you back the ring. Take it, sweetheart. It is heavy with the burden of lonely years. Take it and give me that other which I claim."
She did not speak, for she was fighting down the choking sobs, struggling to keep back the burning drops that scalded her cheeks, striving to gather strength for the weight of a greater shame. Lie, or lose all, the voice said.
Very slowly she raised her head. She knew that his hand was close to hers, held there that she might fulfil Beatrice's promise. Was she not free? Could she not give him what he asked? No matter how--she tried to say it to herself and could not. She felt his breath upon her hair. He was waiting. If she did not act soon or speak he would wonder what held her back--wonder--suspicion next and then? She put out her hand to touch his fingers, half blinded, groping as though she could not see. He made it easy for her. He fancied she was trembling, as she was weeping, with the joy of it all.
She felt the ring, though she dared not look at it. She drew it a little and felt that it would come off easily. She felt the fingers she loved so well, straight, strong and nervous, and she touched them lovingly. The ring was not tight, it would pass easily over the joint that alone kept it in its place.
"Take it, beloved," he said. "It has waited long enough."
He was beginning to wonder at her hesitation as she knew he would. After wonder would come suspicion--and then? Very slowly--it was just upon the joint of his finger now. Should she do it? What would happen? He would have broken his vow--unwittingly. How quickly and gladly Beatrice would have taken it. What would she say, if they lived and met--why should they not meet? Would the spell endure that shock--who would Beatrice be then? The woman who had given him this ring? Or another, whom he would no longer know? But she must be quick. He was waiting and Beatrice would not have made him wait.
Her hand was like stone, numb, motionless, immovable, as though some unseen being had taken it in an iron grasp and held it there, in mid- air, just touching his. Yes--no--yes--she could not move--a hand was clasped upon her wrist, a hand smaller than his, but strong as fate, fixed in its grip as an iron vice.
Unorna felt a cold breath, that was not his, upon her forehead, and she felt as though her heavy hair were rising of itself upon her head. She knew that horror, for she had been overtaken by it once before. She was not afraid, but she knew what it was. There was a shadow, too, and a dark woman, tall, queenly, with deep flashing eyes was standing beside her. She knew, before she looked; she looked, and it was there. Her own face was whiter than that other woman's.
"Have you come already?" she asked of the shadow, in a low despairing tone.
"Beatrice--what has happened?" cried the Wanderer. To him, she seemed to be speaking to the empty air and her white face startled him.
"Yes," she said, staring still, in the same hopeless voice. "It is Beatrice. She has come for you."
"Beatrice--beloved--do not speak like that! For God's sake--what do you see? There is nothing there."
"Beatrice is there. I am Unorna."
"Unorna, Beatrice--have we not said it should be all the same! Sweetheart--look at me! Rest here--shut those dear eyes of yours. It is gone now whatever it was--you are tired, dear--you must rest."
Her eyes closed and her head sank. It was gone, as he said, and she knew what it had been--a mere vision called up by her own over- tortured brain. Keyork Arabian had a name for it.
Frightened by your own nerves, laughed the voice, when, if you had not been a coward, you might have faced it down and lied again, and all would have been well. But you shall have another chance, and lying is very easy, even when the nerves are over-wrought. You will do better the next time.
The voice was like Keyork Arabian's. Unstrung, almost forgetting all, she wondered vaguely at the sound, for it was a real sound and a real voice to her. Was her soul his, indeed, and was he drawing it on slowly, surely to the end? Had he been behind her last night? Had he left an hour's liberty only to come back again and take at last what was his?
There is time yet, you have not lost him, for he thinks you mad. The voice spoke once more.
And at the same moment the strong dear arms were again around her, again her head was on that restful shoulder of his, again her pale face was turned up to his, and kisses were raining on her tired eyes, while broken words of love and tenderness made music through the tempest.
Again the vast temptation rose. How could he ever know? Who was to undeceive him, if he was not yet undeceived? Who should ever make him understand the truth so long as the spell lasted? Why not then take what was given her, and when the end came, if it came, then tell all boldly? Even then, he would not understand. Had he understood last night, when she had confessed all that she had done before? He had not believed one word of it, except that she loved him. Could she make him believe it now, when he was clasping her so fiercely to his breast, half mad with love for her himself?
So easy, too. She had but to forget that passing vision, to put her arms about his neck, to give kiss for kiss, and loving word for loving word. Not even that. She had but to lie there, passive, silent if she could not speak, and it would be still the same. No power on earth could undo what she had done, unless she willed it. Neither man nor woman could make his clasping hands let go of her and give her up.
Be still and wait, whispered the voice, you have lost nothing yet.
But Unorna would not. She had spoken and acted her last lie. It was over.