The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
Unorna struggled for a moment. The Wanderer did not understand, but loosed his arms, so that she was free. She rose to her feet and stood before him.
"You have dreamed all this," she said. "I am not Beatrice."
"Dreamed? Not Beatrice?" she heard him cry in his bewilderment.
Something more he said, but she could not catch the words. She was already gone, through the labyrinth of the many plants, to the door through which twelve hours earlier she had fled from Israel Kafka. She ran the faster as she left him behind. She passed the entrance and the passage and the vestibule beyond, not thinking whither she was going, or not caring. She found herself in that large, well-lighted room in which the ancient sleeper lay alone. Perhaps her instinct led her there as to a retreat safer even than her own chamber. She knew that if she would there was something there which she could use.
She sank into a chair and covered her face, trembling from head to foot. For many minutes after that she could neither see nor hear--she would hardly have felt a wound or a blow. And yet she knew that she meant to end her life, since all that made it life was ended.
After a time, her hands fell in a despairing gesture upon her knees and she stared about the room. Her eyes rested on the sleeper, then upon his couch, lying as a prophet in state, the massive head raised upon a silken pillow, the vast limbs just outlined beneath the snow- white robe, the hoary beard flowing down over the great breast that slowly rose and fell.
To her there was a dreadful irony in that useless life, prolonged in sleep beyond the limits of human age. Yet she had thought it worth the labour and care and endless watchfulness it had cost for years. And now her own, strong, young and fresh, seemed not only useless but fit only to be cut off and cast away, as an existence that offended God and man and most of all herself.
But if she died then, there, in that secret chamber where she and her companion had sought the secret of life for years, if she died now-- how would all end? Was it an expiation--or a flight? Would one short moment of half-conscious suffering pay half her debt?
She stared at the old man's face with wide, despairing eyes. Many a time, unknown to Keyork and once to his knowledge, she had roused the sleeper to speak, and on the whole he had spoken truly, wisely, and well. She lacked neither the less courage to die, nor the greater to live. She longed but to hear one honest word, not of hope, but of encouragement, but one word in contrast to those hideous whispered promptings that had come to her in Keyork Arabian's voice. How could she trust herself alone? Her evil deeds were many--so many, that, although she had turned at last against them, she could not tell where to strike.
"If you would only tell me!" she cried leaning over the unconscious head. "If you would only help me. You are so old that you must be wise, and if so very wise, then you are good! Wake, but this once, and tell me what is right!"
The deep eyes opened and looked up to hers. The great limbs stirred, the bony hands unclasped. There was something awe-inspiring in the ancient strength renewed and filled with a new life.
"Who calls me?" asked the clear, deep voice.
"What do you ask of me?"
He had risen from his couch and stood before her, towering far above her head. Even the Wanderer would have seemed but of common stature beside this man of other years, of a forgotten generation, who now stood erect and filled with a mysterious youth.
"Tell me what I should do----"
"Tell me what you have done."
Then in one great confession, with bowed head and folded hands, she poured out the story of her life.
"And I am lost!" she cried at last. "One holds my soul, and one my heart! May not my body die? Oh, say that it is right--that I may die!"
"Die? Die--when you may yet undo?"
"Undo and do. Undo the wrong and do the right."
"I cannot. The wrong is past undoing--and I am past doing right."
"Do not blaspheme--go! Do it."
"Call her--that other woman--Beatrice. Bring her to him, and him to her."
"And see them meet!"
She covered her face with her hands, and one short moan escaped her lips.
"May I not die?" she cried despairingly. "May I not die--for him--for her, for both? Would that not be enough? Would they not meet? Would they not then be free?"
"Do you love him still?"
"With all my broken heart----"
"Then do not leave his happiness to chance alone, but go at once. There is one little act of Heaven's work still in your power. Make it all yours."
His great hands rested on her shoulders and his eyes looked down to hers.
"Is it so bitter to do right?" he asked.
"It is very bitter," she answered.
Very slowly she turned, and as she moved he went beside her, gently urging her and seeming to support her. Slowly, through vestibule and passage, they went on and entered together the great hall of the flowers. The Wanderer was there alone.
He uttered a short cry and sprang to meet her, but stepped back in awe of the great white-robed figure that towered by her side.
"Beatrice!" he cried, as they passed.
"I am not Beatrice," she answered, her downcast eyes not raised to look at him, moving still forward under the gentle guidance of the giant's hand.
"Not Beatrice--no--you are not she--you are Unorna! Have I dreamed all this?"
She had passed him now, and still she would not turn her head. But her voice came back to him as she walked on.
"You have dreamed what will very soon be true," she said. "Wait here, and Beatrice will soon be with you."
"I know that I am mad," the Wanderer cried, making one step to follow her, then stopping short. Unorna was already at the door. The ancient sleeper laid one hand upon her head.
"You will do it now," he said.
"I will do it--to the end," she answered. "Thank God that I have made you live to tell me how."
So she went out, alone, to undo what she had done so evilly well.
The old man turned and went towards the Wanderer, who stood still in the middle of the hall, confused, not knowing whether he had dreamed or was really mad.
"What man are you?" he asked, as the white-robed figure approached.
"A man, as you are, for I was once young--not as you are, for I am very old, and yet like you, for I am young again."
"You speak in riddles. What are you doing here, and where have you sent Unorna?"
"When I was old, in that long time between, she took me in, and I have slept beneath her roof these many years. She came to me to-day. She told me all her story and all yours, waking me from my sleep, and asking me what she should do. And she is gone to do that thing of which I told her. Wait and you will see. She loves you well."
"And you would help her to get my love, as she had tried to get it before?" the Wanderer asked with rising anger. "What am I to you, or you to me, that you would meddle in my life?"
"You to me? Nothing. A man."
"Therefore an enemy--and you would help Unorna--let me go! This home is cursed. I will not stay in it." The hoary giant took his arm, and the Wanderer started at the weight and strength of the touch.
"You shall bless this house before you leave it. In this place, here where you stand, you shall find the happiness you have sought through all the years."
"In Unorna?" the question was asked scornfully.
"I do not believe you. You are mad, as I am. Would you play the prophet?"
The door opened in the distance, and from behind the screen of plants Keyork Arabian came forward into the hall, his small eyes bright, his ivory face set and expressionless, his long beard waving in the swing of his walk. The Wanderer saw him first and called to him.
"Keyork--come here!" he said. "Who is this man?"
For a moment Keyork seemed speechless with amazement. But it was anger that choked his words. Then he came on quickly.
"Who waked him?" he cried in fury. "What is this? Why is he here?"
"Unorna waked me," answered the ancient sleeper very calmly.
"Unorna? Again? The curse of The Three Black Angels on her! Mad again? Sleep, go back! It is not ready yet, and you will die, and I shall lose it all--all--all! Oh, she shall pay for this with her soul in hell!"
He threw himself upon the giant, in an insane frenzy, clasping his arms round the huge limbs and trying to force him backwards.
"Go! go!" he cried frantically. "It may not be too late! You may yet sleep and live! Oh, my Experiment, my great Experiment! All lost----"
"What is this madness?" asked the Wanderer. "You cannot carry him, and he will not go. Let him alone."
"Madness?" yelled Keyork, turning on him. "You are the madman, you the fool, who cannot understand! Help me to move him--you are strong and young--together we can take him back--he may yet sleep and live--he must and shall! I say it! Lay your hands on him--you will not help me? Then I will curse you till you do----"
"Poor Keyork!" exclaimed the Wanderer, half pitying him. "Your big thoughts have cracked your little brain at last."
"Poor Keyork? You call me poor Keyork? You boy! You puppet! You ball, that we have bandied to and fro, half sleeping, half awake! It drives me mad to see you standing there, scoffing instead of helping me!"
"You are past my help, I fear."
"Will you not move? Are you dead already, standing on your feet and staring at me?"
Again Keyork threw himself upon the huge old man, and stamped and struggled and tried to move him backwards. He might as well have spent his strength against a rock. Breathless but furious still, he desisted at last, too much beside himself to see that he whose sudden death he feared was stronger than he, because the great experiment had succeeded far beyond all hope.
"Unorna has done this!" he cried, beating his forehead in impotent rage. "Unorna has ruined me, and all,--and everything--so she has paid me for my help! Trust a woman when she loves? Trust angels to curse God, or Hell to save a sinner! But she shall pay, too--I have her still. Why do you stare at me? Wait, fool! You shall be happy now. What are you to me that I should even hate you? You shall have what you want. I will bring you the woman you love, the Beatrice you have seen in dreams--and then Unorna's heart will break and she will die, and her soul--her soul----"
Keyork broke into a peal of laughter, deep, rolling, diabolical in its despairing, frantic mirth. He was still laughing as he reached the door.
"Her soul, her soul!" they heard him cry, between one burst and another as he went out, and from the echoing vestibule, and from the staircase beyond, the great laughter rolled back to them when they were left alone.
"What is it all? I cannot understand," the Wanderer said, looking up to the grand calm face.
"It is not always given to evil to do good, even for evil's sake," said the old man. "The thing that he would is done already. The wound that he would make is already bleeding; the heart he is gone to break is broken; the soul that he would torture is beyond all his torments."
"Is Unorna dead?" the Wanderer asked, turning, he knew now why, with a sort of reverence to his companion.
"She is not dead."
Unorna waited in the parlour of the convent. Then Beatrice came in, and stood before her. Neither feared the other, and each looked into the other's eyes.
"I have come to undo what I have done," Unorna said, not waiting for the cold inquiry which she knew would come if she were silent.
"That will be hard, indeed," Beatrice answered.
"Yes. It is very hard. Make it still harder if you can, I could still do it."
"And do you think I will believe you, or trust you?" asked the dark woman.
"I know that you will when you know how I have loved him."
"Have you come here to tell me of your love?"
"Yes. And when I have told you, you will forgive me."
"I am no saint," said Beatrice, coldly. "I do not find forgiveness in such abundance as you need."
"You will find it for me. You are not bad, as I am, but you can understand what I have done, nevertheless, for you know what you yourself would do for the sake of him we love. No--do not be angry with me yet--I love him and I tell you so--that you may understand."
"At that price, I would rather not have the understanding. I do not care to hear you say it. It is not good to hear."
"Yet, if I did not love him as I do, I should not be here, of my own free will, to take you to him. I came for that."
"I do not believe you," Beatrice answered in tones like ice.
"And yet you will, and very soon. Whether you forgive or not--that is another matter. I cannot ask it. God knows how much easier it would have been to die than to come here. But if I were dead you might never have found him, nor he you, though you are so very near together. Do you think it is easier for me to come to you, whom he loves, than it is for you to hear me say I love him, when I come to give him to you? If you had found it all, not as it is, but otherwise--if you had found that in these years he had known me and loved me, as he once loved you, if he turned from you coldly and bid you forget him, because he would be happy with me, and because he had utterly forgotten you-- would it be easy for you to give him up?"
"He loved me then--he loves me still," Beatrice said. "It is another case."
"A much more bitter case. Even then you would have the memory of his love, which I can never have--in true reality, though I have much to remember, in his dreams of you."
Beatrice started a little, and her brow grew dark and angry.
"Then you have tried to get what was not yours by your bad powers!" she cried. "And you have made him sleep--and dream--what?"
"And he talked of love?"
"Of love for you."
"And dreamed that you were I? That too?"
"That I was you."
"Is there more to tell?" Beatrice asked, growing white. "He kissed you in that dream of his--do not tell me he did that--no, tell me--tell me all!"
"He kissed the thing he saw, believing the lips yours."
"More--more--is it not done yet? Can you sting again? What else?"
"Nothing--save that last night I tried to kill you, body and soul."
"And why did you not kill me?"
"Because you woke. Then the nun saved you. If she had not come, you would have slept again, and slept for ever. And I would have let his dreams last, and made it last--for him, I should have been the only Beatrice."
"You have done all this, and you ask me to forgive you?"
"I ask nothing. If you will not go to him, I will bring him to you--"
Beatrice turned away and walked across the room.
"Loved her," she said aloud, "and talked to her of love, and kissed--" She stopped suddenly. Then she came back again with swift steps and grasped Unorna's arm fiercely.
"Tell me more still--this dream has lasted long--you are man and wife!"
"We might have been. He would still have thought me you, for months and years. He would have had me take from his finger that ring you put there. I tried--I tell you the whole truth--but I could not. I saw you there beside me and you held my hand. I broke away and left him."
"Left him of your free will?"
"I could not lie again. It was too much. He would have broken a promise if I had stayed. I love him--so I left him."
"Is all this true?"
"Swear it to me."
"How can I? By what shall I swear to you? Heaven itself would laugh at any oath of mine. With my life I will answer for every word. With my soul--no--it is not mine to answer with. Will you have my life? My last breath shall tell you that I tell the truth. The dying do not lie."
"You tell me that you love that man. You tell me that you made him think in dreams that he loved you. You tell me that you might be man and wife. And you ask me to believe that you turned back from such happiness as would make an angel sin? If you had done this--but it is not possible--no woman could! His words in your ear, and yet turn back? His lips on yours, and leave him? Who could do that?"
"One who loves him."
"What made you do it?"
"Fear? And what have I to fear? My body is beyond the fear of death, as my soul is beyond the hope of life. If it were to be done again I should be weak. I know I should. If you could know half of what the doing cost! But let that alone. I did it, and he is waiting for you. Will you come?"
"If I only knew it to be true----"
"How hard you make it. Yet, it was hard enough."
Beatrice touched her arm, more gently than before, and gazed into her eyes.
"If I could believe it all I would not make it hard. I would forgive you--and you would deserve better than that, better than anything that is mine to give."
"I deserve nothing and ask nothing. If you will come, you will see, and, seeing, you will believe. And if you then forgive--well then, you will have done far more than I could do."
"I would forgive you freely----"
"Are you afraid to go with me?"
"No. I am afraid of something worse. You have put something here--a hope----"
"A hope? Then you believe. There is no hope without a little belief in it. Will you come?"
"It can but be untrue," said Beatrice, still hesitating. "I can but go. What of him!" she asked suddenly. "If he were living--would you take me to him? Could you?"
She turned very pale, and her eyes stared madly at Unorna.
"If he were dead," Unorna answered, "I should not be here."
Something in her tone and look moved Beatrice's heart at last.
"I will go with you," she said. "And if I find him--and if all is well with him--then God in Heaven repay you, for you have been braver than the bravest I ever knew."
"Can love save a soul as well as lose it?" Unorna asked.
Then they went away together.
They were scarcely out of sight of the convent gate when another carriage drove up. Almost before it had stopped, the door opened and Keyork Arabian's short, heavy form emerged and descended hastily to the pavement. He rang the bell furiously, and the old portress set the gate ajar and looked out cautiously, fearing that the noisy peal meant trouble or disturbance.
"The lady Beatrice Varanger--I must see her instantly!" cried the little man in terrible excitement.
"She is gone out," the portress replied.
"Gone out? Where? Alone?"
"With a lady who was here last night--a lady with unlike eyes--"
"Where? Where? Where are they gone?" asked Keyork hardly able to find breath.
"The lady bade the coachman drive her home--but where she lives--"
"Home? To Unorna's home? It is not true! I see it in your eyes. Witch! Hag! Let me in! Let me in, I say! May vampires get your body and the Three Black Angels cast lots upon your soul!"
In the storm of curses that followed, the convent door was violently shut in his face. Within, the portress stood shaking with fear, crossing herself again and again, and verily believing that the devil himself had tried to force an entrance into the sacred place.
In fearful anger Keyork drew back. He hesitated one moment and then regained his carriage.
"To Unorna's house!" he shouted, as he shut the door with a crash.
"This is my house, and he is here," Unorna said, as Beatrice passed before her, under the deep arch of the entrance.
Then she lead the way up the broad staircase, and through the small outer hall to the door of the great conservatory.
"You will find him there," she said. "Go on alone."
But Beatrice took her hand to draw her in.
"Must I see it all?" Unorna asked, hopelessly.
Then from among the plants and trees a great white-robed figure came out and stood between them. Joining their hands he gently pushed them forward to the middle of the hall where the Wanderer stood alone.
"It is done!" Unorna cried, as her heart broke.
She saw the scene she had acted so short a time before. She heard the passionate cry, the rain of kisses, the tempest of tears. The expiation was complete. Not a sight, not a sound was spared her. The strong arms of the ancient sleeper held her upright on her feet. She could not fall, she could not close her eyes, she could not stop her ears, no merciful stupor overcame her.
"Is it so bitter to do right?" the old man asked, bending low and speaking softly.
"It is the bitterness of death," she said.
"It is well done," he answered.
Then came a noise of hurried steps and a loud, deep voice, calling, "Unorna! Unorna!"
Keyork Arabian was there. He glanced at Beatrice and the Wanderer, locked in each other's arms, then turned to Unorna and looked into her face.
"It has killed her," he said. "Who did it?"
His low-spoken words echoed like angry thunder.
"Give her to me," he said again. "She is mine--body and soul."
But the great strong arms were around her and would not let her go.
"Save me!" she cried in failing tones. "Save me from him!"
"You have saved yourself," said the solemn voice of the old man.
"Saved?" Keyork laughed. "From me?" He laid his hand upon her arm. Then his face changed again, and his laughter died dismally away, and he hung back.
"Can you forgive her?" asked the other voice.
The Wanderer stood close to them now, drawing Beatrice to his side. The question was for them.
"Can you forgive me?" asked Unorna faintly, turning her eyes towards them.
"As we hope to find forgiveness and trust in a life to come," they answered.
There was a low sound in the air, unearthly, muffled, desperate as of a strong being groaning in awful agony. When they looked, they saw that Keyork Arabian was gone.
The dawn of a coming day rose in Unorna's face as she sank back.
"It is over," she sighed, as her eyes closed.
Her question was answered; her love had saved her.