The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
He had been deceived in supposing that he must inevitably find the names of those he sought upon the ordinary registers which chronicle the arrival and departure of travellers. He lost no time, he spared no effort, driving from place to place as fast as two sturdy Hungarian horses could take him, hurrying from one office to another, and again and again searching endless pages and columns which seemed full of all the names of earth, but in which he never found the one of all others which he longed to read. The gloom in the narrow streets was already deepening, though it was scarcely two hours after mid-day, and the heavy air had begun to thicken with a cold gray haze, even in the broad, straight Przikopy, the wide thoroughfare which has taken the place and name of the moat before the ancient fortifications, so that distant objects and figures lost the distinctness of their outlines. Winter in Prague is but one long, melancholy dream, broken sometimes at noon by an hour of sunshine, by an intermittent visitation of reality, by the shock and glare of a little broad daylight. The morning is not morning, the evening is not evening; as in the land of the Lotus, it is ever afternoon, gray, soft, misty, sad, save when the sun, being at his meridian height, pierces the dim streets and sweeps the open places with low, slanting waves of pale brightness. And yet these same dusky streets are thronged with a moving multitude, are traversed ever by ceaseless streams of men and women, flowing onward, silently, swiftly, eagerly. The very beggars do not speak above a whisper, the very dogs are dumb. The stillness of all voices leaves nothing for the perception of the hearing save the dull thread of many thousand feet and the rough rattle of an occasional carriage. Rarely, the harsh tones of a peasant, or the clear voices of a knot of strangers, unused to such oppressive silence, startle the ear, causing hundreds of eager, half-suspicious, half-wondering eyes to turn in the direction of the sound.
And yet Prague is a great city, the capital of the Bohemian Crownland, the centre of a not unimportant nation, the focus in which are concentrated the hottest, if not the brightest, rays from the fire of regeneration kindled within the last half century by the Slavonic race. There is an ardent furnace of life hidden beneath the crust of ashes: there is a wonderful language behind that national silence.
The Wanderer stood in deep thought under the shadow of the ancient Powder Tower. Haste had no further object now, since he had made every inquiry within his power, and it was a relief to feel the pavement beneath his feet and to breathe the misty frozen air after having been so long in the closeness of his carriage. He hesitated as to what he should do, unwilling to return to Unorna and acknowledge himself vanquished, yet finding it hard to resist his desire to try every means, no matter how little reasonable, how evidently useless, how puerile and revolting to his sounder sense. The street behind him led directly towards Unorna's house. Had he found himself in a more remote quarter, he might have come to another and a wiser conclusion. Being so near to the house of which he was thinking, he yielded to the temptation. Having reached this stage of resolution, his mind began to recapitulate the events of the day, and he suddenly felt a strong wish to revisit the church, to stand in the place where Beatrice had stood, to touch in the marble basin beside the door the thick ice which her fingers had touched so lately, to traverse again the dark passages through which he had pursued her. To accomplish his purpose he need only turn aside a few steps from the path he was now following. He left the street almost immediately, passing under a low arched way that opened on the right-hand side, and a moment later he was within the walls of the Teyn Kirche.
The vast building was less gloomy than it had been in the morning. It was not yet the hour of vespers, the funeral torches had been extinguished, as well as most of the lights upon the high altar, there were not a dozen persons in the church, and high up beneath the roof broad shafts of softened sunshine, floating above the mists of the city without, streamed through the narrow lancet windows and were diffused in the great gloom below. The Wanderer went to the monument of Brahe and sat down in the corner of the blackened pew. His hands trembled a little as he clasped them upon his knee, and his head sank slowly towards his breast.
He thought of all that might have been if he had risked everything that morning. He could have used his strength to force a way for himself through the press, he could have thrust the multitude to the right and left, and he could have reached her side. Perhaps he had been weak, indolent, timid, and he accused himself of his own failure. But then, again, he seemed to see about him the closely packed crowd, the sea of faces, the thick, black mass of humanity, and he knew the tremendous power that lay in the inert, passive resistance of a vast gathering such as had been present. Had it been anywhere else, in a street, in a theatre, anywhere except in a church, all would have been well. It had not been his fault, for he knew, when he thought of it calmly, that the strength of his body would have been but as a breath of air against the silent, motionless, and immovable barrier presented by a thousand men, standing shoulder to shoulder against him. He could have done nothing. Once again his fate had defeated him at the moment of success.
He was aware that some one was standing very near to him. He looked up and saw a very short, gray-bearded man engaged in a minute examination of the dark red marble face on the astronomer's tomb. The man's head, covered with closely-cropped gray hair, was half buried between his high, broad shoulders, in an immense collar of fur, but the shape of the skull was so singular as to distinguish its possessor, when hatless, from all other men. The cranium was abnormally shaped, reaching a great elevation at the summit, then sinking suddenly, then spreading forward to an enormous development at the temple just visible as he was then standing, and at the same time forming unusual protuberances behind the large and pointed ears. No one who knew the man could mistake his head, when even the least portion of it could be seen. The Wanderer recognised him at once.
As though he were conscious of being watched, the little man turned sharply, exhibiting his wrinkled forehead, broad at the brows, narrow and high in the middle, showing, too, a Socratic nose half buried in the midst of the gray hair which grew as high as the prominent cheek bones, and suggesting the idea of a polished ivory ball lying in a nest of grayish wool. Indeed all that was visible of the face above the beard might have been carved out of old ivory, so far as the hue and quality of the surface were concerned; and if it had been necessary to sculpture a portrait of the man, no material could have been chosen more fitted to reproduce faithfully the deep cutting of the features, to render the close network of the wrinkles which covered them like the shadings of a line engraving, and at the same time to give the whole that appearance of hardness and smoothness which was peculiar to the clear, tough skin. The only positive colour which relieved the half tints of the face lay in the sharp bright eyes which gleamed beneath the busy eyebrows like tiny patches of vivid blue sky seen through little rifts in a curtain of cloud. All expression, all mobility, all life were concentrated in those two points.
The Wanderer rose to his feet.
"Keyork Arabian!" he exclaimed, extending his hand. The little man immediately gripped it in his small fingers, which, soft and delicately made as they were, possessed a strength hardly to have been expected either from their shape, or from the small proportions of him to whom they belonged.
"Still wandering?" asked the little man, with a slightly sarcastic intonation. He spoke in a deep, caressing bass, not loud, but rich in quality and free from that jarring harshness which often belongs to very manly voices. A musician would have discovered that the pitch was that of those Russian choristers whose deep throats yield organ tones, a full octave below the compass of ordinary singers in other lands.
"You must have wandered, too, since we last met," replied the taller man.
"I never wander," said Keyork. "When a man knows what he wants, knows where it is to be found, and goes thither to take it, he is not wandering. Moreover, I have no thought of removing myself or my goods from Prague. I live here. It is a city for old men. It is saturnine. The foundations of its houses rest on the silurian formation, which is more than can be said for any other capital, as far as I know."
"Is that an advantage?" inquired the Wanderer.
"To my mind. I would say to my son, if I had one--my thanks to a blind but intelligent destiny for preserving me from such a calamity!--I would say to him, 'Spend thy youth among flowers in the land where they are brightest and sweetest; pass thy manhood in all lands where man strives with man, thought for thought, blow for blow; choose for thine old age that spot in which, all things being old, thou mayest for the longest time consider thyself young in comparison with thy surroundings.' A man can never feel old if he contemplates and meditates upon those things only which are immeasurably older than himself. Moreover the imperishable can preserve the perishable."
"It was not your habit to talk of death when we were together."
"I have found it interesting of late years. The subject is connected with one of my inventions. Did you ever embalm a body? No? I could tell you something singular about the newest process."
"What is the connection?"
"I am embalming myself, body and mind. It is but an experiment, and unless it succeeds it must be the last. Embalming, as it is now understood, means substituting one thing for another. Very good. I am trying to purge from my mind its old circulating medium; the new thoughts must all be selected from a class which admits of no decay. Nothing could be simpler."
"It seems to me that nothing could be more vague."
"You were not formerly so slow to understand me," said the strange little man with some impatience.
"Do you know a lady of Prague who calls herself Unorna?" the Wanderer asked, paying no attention to his friend's last remark.
"I do. What of her?" Keyork Arabian glanced keenly at his companion.
"What is she? She has an odd name."
"As for her name, it is easily accounted for. She was born on the twenty-ninth day of February, the year of her birth being bisextile. Unor means February, Unorna, derivative adjective, 'belonging to February.' Some one gave her the name to commemorate the circumstance."
"Her parents, I suppose."
"Most probably--whoever they may have been."
"And what is she?" the Wanderer asked.
"She calls herself a witch," answered Keyork with considerable scorn. "I do not know what she is, or what to call her--a sensitive, an hysterical subject, a medium, a witch--a fool, if you like, or a charlatan if you prefer the term. Beautiful she is, at least, whatever else she may not be."
"Yes, she is beautiful."
"So you have seen her, have you?" The little man again looked sharply up at his tall companion. "You have had a consultation----"
"Does she give consultations? Is she a professional seer?" The Wanderer asked the question in a tone of surprise. "Do you mean that she maintains an establishment upon such a scale out of the proceeds of fortune-telling?"
"I do not mean anything of the sort. Fortune-telling is excellent! Very good!" Keyork's bright eyes flashed with amusement. "What are you doing here--I mean in this church?" He put the question suddenly.
"Pursuing--an idea, if you please to call it so."
"Not knowing what you mean I must please to call your meaning by your own name for it. It is your nature to be enigmatic. Shall we go out? If I stay here much longer I shall be petrified instead of embalmed. I shall turn into dirty old red marble like Tycho's effigy there, an awful warning to future philosophers, and an example for the edification of the faithful who worship here."
They walked towards the door, and the contrast between the appearance of the two brought the ghost of a smile to the thin lips of the pale sacristan, who was occupied in renewing the tapers upon one of the side altars. Keyork Arabian might have stood for the portrait of the gnome-king. His high and pointed head, his immense beard, his stunted but powerful and thickset limbs, his short, sturdy strides, the fiery, half-humorous, half-threatening twinkle of his bright eyes gave him all the appearance of a fantastic figure from a fairy tale, and the diminutive height of his compact frame set off the noble stature and graceful motion of his companion.
"So you were pursuing an idea," said the little man as they emerged into the narrow street. "Now ideas may be divided variously into classes, as, for instance, ideas which are good, bad, or indifferent. Or you may contrast the idea of Plato with ideas anything but platonic --take it as you please. Then there is my idea, which is in itself, good, interesting, and worthy of the embalming process; and there is your idea, which I am human enough to consider altogether bad, worthless, and frivolous, for the plain and substantial reason that it is not mine. Perhaps that is the best division of all. Thine eye is necessarily, fatally, irrevocably evil, because mine is essentially, predestinately, and unchangeably good. If I secretly adopt your idea, I openly assert that it was never yours at all, but mine from the beginning, by the prerogatives of greater age, wider experience, and immeasurably superior wisdom. If you have an idea upon any subject, I will utterly annihilate it to my own most profound satisfaction; if you have none concerning any special point, I will force you to accept mine, as mine, or to die the intellectual death. That is the general theory of the idea."
"And what does it prove?" inquired the Wanderer.
"If you knew anything," answered Keyork, with twinkling eyes, "you would know that a theory is not a demonstration, but an explanation. But, by the hypothesis, since you are not I, you can know nothing certainly. Now my theory explains many things, and, among others, the adamantine, imperishable, impenetrable nature of the substance vanity upon which the showman, Nature, projects in fast fading colours the unsubstantial images of men. Why do you drag me through this dismal passage?"
"I passed through it this morning and missed my way."
"In pursuit of the idea, of course. That was to be expected. Prague is constructed on the same principle as the human brain, full of winding ways, dark lanes, and gloomy arches, all of which may lead somewhere, or may not. Its topography continually misleads its inhabitants as the convolutions of the brain mislead the thoughts that dwell there, sometimes bringing them out at last, after a patient search for daylight, upon a fine broad street where the newest fashions in thought are exposed for sale in brightly illuminated shop windows and showcases; conducting them sometimes to the dark, unsavoury court where the miserable self drags out its unhealthy existence in the single room of its hired earthly lodging."
"The self which you propose to preserve from corruption," observed the tall man, who was carefully examining every foot of the walls between which he was passing with his companion, "since you think so poorly of the lodger and the lodging, I wonder that you should be anxious to prolong the sufferings of the one and his lease of the other."
"It is all I have," answered Keyork Arabian. "Did you think of that?"
"That circumstance may serve as an excuse, but it does not constitute a reason."
"Not a reason! Is the most abject poverty a reason for throwing away the daily crust? My self is all I have. Shall I let it perish when an effort may preserve it from destruction? On the one side of the line stands Keyork Arabian, on the other floats the shadow of an annihilation, which threatens to swallow up Keyork's self, while leaving all that he has borrowed of life to be enjoyed, or wasted by others. Could Keyork be expected to hesitate, so long as he may hope to remain in possession of that inestimable treasure, his own individuality, which is his only means for enjoying all that is not his, but borrowed?"
"So soon as you speak of enjoyment, argument ceases," answered the Wanderer.
"You are wrong, as usual," returned the other. "It is the other way. Enjoyment is the universal solvent of all arguments. No reason can resist its mordant action. It will dissolve any philosophy not founded upon it and modelled out of its substance, as Aqua Regia will dissolve all metals, even to gold itself. Enjoyment? Enjoyment is the protest of reality against the tyranny of fiction."
The little man stopped short in his walk, striking his heavy stick sharply upon the pavement and looking up at his companion, very much as a man of ordinary size looks up at the face of a colossal statue.
"Have wisdom and study led you no farther than that conclusion?"
Keyork's eyes brightened suddenly, and a peal of laughter, deep and rich, broke from his sturdy breast and rolled long echoes through the dismal lane, musical as a hunting-song heard among great trees in winter. But his ivory features were not discomposed, though his white beard trembled and waved softly like a snowy veil blown about by the wind.
"If wisdom can teach how to prolong the lease, what study can be compared with that of which the results may beautify the dwelling? What more can any man do for himself than make himself happy? The very question is absurd. What are you trying to do for yourself at the present moment? Is it for the sake of improving the physical condition or of promoting the moral case of mankind at large that you are dragging me through the slums and byways and alleys of the gloomiest city on this side of eternal perdition? It is certainly not for my welfare that you are sacrificing yourself. You admit that you are pursuing an idea. Perhaps you are in search of some new and curious form of mildew, and when you have found it--or something else--you will name your discovery Fungus Pragensis, or Cryptogamus minor Errantis--'the Wanderer's toadstool.' But I know you of old, my good friend. The idea you pursue is not an idea at all, but that specimen of the genus homo known as 'woman,' species 'lady,' variety 'true love,' vulgar designation 'sweetheart.'"
The Wanderer stared coldly at his companion.
"The vulgarity of the designation is indeed only equalled by that of your taste in selecting it," he said slowly. Then he turned away, intending to leave Keyork standing where he was.
But the little man had already repented of his speech. He ran quickly to his friend's side and laid one hand upon his arm. The Wanderer paused and again looked down.
"Is it of any use to be offended with my speeches? Am I an acquaintance of yesterday? Do you imagine that it could ever be my intention to annoy you?" the questions were asked rapidly in tones of genuine anxiety.
"Indeed, I hardly know how I could suppose that. You have always been friendly--but I confess--your names for things are not--always----"
The Wanderer did not complete the sentence, but looked gravely at Keyork as though wishing to convey very clearly again what he had before expressed in words.
"If we were fellow-countrymen and had our native language in common, we should not so easily misunderstand one another," replied the other. "Come, forgive my lack of skill, and do not let us quarrel. Perhaps I can help you. You may know Prague well, but I know it better. Will you allow me to say that I know also whom it is you are seeking here?"
"Yes. You know. I have not changed since we last met, nor have circumstances favoured me."
"Tell me--have you really seen this Unorna, and talked with her?"
"And she could not help you?"
"I refused to accept her help, until I had done all that was in my own power to do."
"You were rash. And have you now done all, and failed?"
"Then, if you will accept a humble suggestion from me, you will go back to her at once."
"I know very little of her. I do not altogether trust her--"
"Trust! Powers of Eblis--or any other powers! Who talks of trust? Does the wise man trust himself? Never. Then how can he dare trust any one else?"
"Your cynical philosophy again!" exclaimed the Wanderer.
"Philosophy? I am a mysosophist! All wisdom is vanity, and I hate it! Autology is my study, autosophy my ambition, autonomy my pride. I am the great Panegoist, the would-be Conservator of Self, the inspired prophet of the Universal I. I--I--I! My creed has but one word, and that word but one letter, that letter represents Unity, and Unity is Strength. I am I, one, indivisible, central! O I! Hail and live for ever!"
Again the little man's rich bass voice rang out in mellow laughter. A very faint smile appeared upon his companion's sad face.
"You are happy, Keyork," he said. "You must be, since you can laugh at yourself so honestly."
"At myself? Vain man! I am laughing at you, and at every one else, at everything except myself. Will you go to Unorna? You need not trust her any more than the natural infirmity of your judgment suggests."
"Can you tell me nothing more of her? Do you know her well?"
"She does not offer her help to every one. You would have done well to accept it in the first instance. You may not find her in the same humour again."
"I had supposed from what you said of her that she made a profession of clairvoyance, or hypnotism, or mesmerism--whatever may be the right term nowadays."
"It matters very little," answered Keyork, gravely. "I used to wonder at Adam's ingenuity in naming all living things, but I think he would have made but a poor figure in a tournament of modern terminologists. No. Unorna does not accept remuneration for her help when she vouchsafes to give it."
"And yet I was introduced to her presence without even giving my name."
"That is her fancy. She will see any one who wishes to see her, beggar, gentleman, or prince. But she only answers such questions as she pleases to answer."
"That is to say, inquiries for which she is already prepared with a reply," suggested the Wanderer.
"See for yourself. At all events, she is a very interesting specimen. I have never known any one like her."
Keyork Arabian was silent, as though he were reflecting upon Unorna's character and peculiar gifts, before describing them to his friend. His ivory features softened almost imperceptibly, and his sharp blue eyes suddenly lost their light, as though they no longer saw the outer world. But the Wanderer cared for none of these things, and bestowed no attention upon his companion's face. He preferred the little man's silence to his wild talk, but he was determined, if possible, to extract some further information concerning Unorna, and before many seconds had elapsed he interrupted Keyork's meditations with a question.
"You tell me to see for myself," he said. "I would like to know what I am to expect. Will you not enlighten me?"
"What?" asked the other vaguely, as though roused from sleep.
"If I go to Unorna and ask a consultation of her, as though she were a common somnambulist, and if she deigns to place her powers at my disposal what sort of assistance shall I most probably get?"
They had been walking slowly forward, and Keyork again stopped, rapping the pavement with his iron-shod stick, and looking up from under his bushy, overhanging eyebrows.
"Of two things, one will happen," he answered. "Either she will herself fall into the abnormal state and will answer correctly any questions you put to her, or she will hypnotise you, and you will yourself see--what you wish to see."
"You yourself. The peculiarity of the woman is her duality, her double power. She can, by an act of volition, become hypnotic, clairvoyant-- whatever you choose to call it. Or, if her visitor is at all sensitive, she can reverse the situation and play the part of the hypnotiser. I never heard of a like case."
"After all, I do not see why it should not be so," said the Wanderer thoughtfully. "At all events, whatever she can do, is evidently done by hypnotism, and such extraordinary experiments have succeeded of late--"
"I did not say that there was nothing but hypnotism in her processes."
"What then? Magic?" The Wanderer's lip curled scornfully.
"I do not know," replied the little man, speaking slowly. "Whatever her secret may be, she keeps it, even when speaking in sleep. This I can tell you. I suspect that there is some other being, or person, in that queer old house of hers whom she consults on grave occasions. At a loss for an answer to a difficult scientific question, I have known her to leave the room and to come back in the course of a few minutes with a reply which I am positive she could never have framed herself."
"She may have consulted books," suggested the Wanderer.
"I am an old man," said Keyork Arabian suddenly. "I am a very old man; there are not many books which I have not seen and partially read at one time or at another, and my memory is surprisingly good. I have excellent reasons for believing that her information is not got from anything that was ever written or printed."
"May I ask of what general nature your questions were?" inquired the other, more interested than he had hitherto been in the conversation.
"They referred to the principles of embalmment."
"Much has been written about that since the days of the Egyptians."
"The Egyptians!" exclaimed Keyork with great scorn. "They embalmed their dead after a fashion. Did you ever hear that they embalmed the living?" The little man's eyes shot fire.
"No, nor will I believe in any such outrageous impossibilities! If that is all, I have little faith in Unorna's mysterious counsellor."
"The faith which removes mountains is generally gained by experience when it is gained at all, and the craving for explanation takes the place, in some minds, of a willingness to learn. It is not my business to find explanations, nor to raise my little self to your higher level, by standing upon this curbstone, in order to deliver a lecture in the popular form, upon matters that interest me. It is enough that I have found what I wanted. Go and do likewise. See for yourself. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. You are unhappy, and unhappiness is dangerous, in rare cases fatal. If you tell me to-morrow that Unorna is a charlatan, you will be in no worse plight than to-day, nor will your opinion of her influence mine. If she helps you to find what you want--so much the better for you--how much the better, and how great the risk you run, are questions for your judgment."
"I will go," answered the Wanderer, after a moment's hesitation.
"Very good," said Keyork Arabian. "If you want to find me again, come to my lodging. Do you know the house of the Black Mother of God?"
"Yes--there is a legend about a Spanish picture of our Lady once preserved there--"
"Exactly, it takes its name from that black picture. It is on the corner of the Fruit Market, over against the window at which the Princess Windischgratz was shot. I live in the upper story. Good-bye."