The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
After the Wanderer had left her, Unorna continued to hold in her hand the book she had again taken up, following the printed lines mechanically from left to right, from the top of the page to the foot. Having reached that point, however, she did not turn over the leaf. She was vaguely aware that she had not understood the sense of the words, and she returned to the place at which she had begun, trying to concentrate her attention upon the matter, moving her fresh lips to form the syllables, and bending her brows in the effort of understanding, so that a short, straight furrow appeared, like a sharp vertical cut extending from between the eyes to the midst of the broad forehead. One, two and three sentences she grasped and comprehended; then her thoughts wandered again, and the groups of letters passed meaningless before her sight. She was accustomed to directing her intelligence without any perceptible effort, and she was annoyed at being thus led away from her occupation, against her will and in spite of her determination. A third attempt showed her that it was useless to force herself any longer, and with a gesture and look of irritation she once more laid the volume upon the table at her side.
During a few minutes she sat motionless in her chair, her elbow leaning on the carved arm-piece, her chin supported upon the back of her half-closed hand, of which the heavy, perfect fingers were turned inwards, drooping in classic curves towards the lace about her throat. Her strangely mismatched eyes stared vacantly towards an imaginary horizon, not bounded by banks of flowers, nor obscured by the fantastic foliage of exotic trees.
Presently she held up her head, her white hand dropped upon her knee, she hesitated an instant, and then rose to her feet, swiftly, as though she had made a resolution and was about to act upon it. She made a step forward, and then paused again, while a half-scornful smile passed like a shadow over her face. Very slowly she began to pace the marble floor, up and down in the open space before her chair, turning and turning again, the soft folds of her white gown following her across the smooth pavement with a gentle, sweeping sound, such as the breeze makes among flowers in spring.
"Is it he?" she asked aloud in a voice ringing with the joy and the fear of a passion that has waited long and is at last approaching the fulfilment of satisfaction.
No answer came to her from among the thick foliage nor in the scented breath of the violets and the lilies. The murmuring song of the little fountain alone disturbed the stillness, and the rustle of her own garments as she moved.
"Is it he? Is it he? Is it he?" she repeated again and again, in varying tones, chiming the changes of hope and fear, of certainty and vacillation, of sadness and of gladness, of eager passion and of chilling doubt.
She stood still, staring at the pavement, her fingers clasped together, the palms of her hands turned downward, her arms relaxed. She did not see the dark red squares of marble, alternating with the white and the gray, but as she looked a face and a form rose before her, in the contemplation of which all her senses and faculties concentrated themselves. The pale and noble head grew very distinct in her inner sight, the dark gray eyes gazed sadly upon her, the passionate features were fixed in the expression of a great sorrow.
"Are you indeed he?" she asked, speaking softly and doubtfully, and yet unconsciously projecting her strong will upon the vision, as though to force it to give the answer for which she longed.
And the answer came, imposed by the effort of her imagination upon the thing imagined. The face suddenly became luminous, as with a radiance within itself; the shadows of grief melted away, and in their place trembled the rising light of a dawning love. The lips moved and the voice spoke, not as it had spoken to her lately, but in tones long familiar to her in dreams by day and night.
"I am he, I am that love for whom you have waited; you are that dear one whom I have long sought throughout the world. The hour of our joy has struck, the new life begins to-day, and there shall be no end."
Unorna's arms went out to grasp the shadow, and she drew it to her in her fancy and kissed its radiant face.
"To ages of ages!" she cried.
Then she covered her eyes as though to impress the sight they had seen upon the mind within, and groping blindly for her chair sank back into her seat. But the mechanical effort of will and memory could not preserve the image. In spite of all inward concentration of thought, its colours faded, its outlines trembled, grew faint and vanished, and darkness was in its place. Unorna's hand dropped to her side, and a quick throb of pain stabbed her through and through, agonising as the wound of a blunt and jagged knife, though it was gone almost before she knew where she had felt it. Then her eyes flashed with unlike fires, the one dark and passionate as the light of a black diamond, the other keen and daring as the gleam of blue steel in the sun.
"Ah, but I will!" she exclaimed. "And what I will--shall be."
As though she were satisfied with the promise thus made to herself, she smiled, her eyelids drooped, the tension of her frame was relaxed, and she sank again into the indolent attitude in which the Wanderer had found her. A moment later the distant door turned softly upon its hinges and a light footfall broke the stillness. There was no need for Unorna to speak in order that the sound of her voice might guide the new comer to her retreat. The footsteps approached swiftly and surely. A young man of singular beauty came out of the green shadows and stood beside the chair in the open space.
Unorna betrayed no surprise as she looked up into her visitor's face. She knew it well. In form and feature the youth represented the noblest type of the Jewish race. It was impossible to see him without thinking of a young eagle of the mountains, eager, swift, sure, instinct with elasticity, far-sighted and untiring, strong to grasp and to hold, beautiful with the glossy and unruffled beauty of a plumage continually smoothed in the sweep and the rush of high, bright air.
Israel Kafka stood still, gazing down upon the woman he loved, and drawing his breath hard between his parted lips. His piercing eyes devoured every detail of the sight before him, while the dark blood rose in his lean olive cheek, and the veins of his temples swelled with the beating of his quickened pulse.
The single indifferent word received the value of a longer speech from the tone in which it was uttered, and from the look and gesture which accompanied it. Unorna's voice was gentle, soft, half-indolent, half- caressing, half-expectant, and half-careless. There was something almost insolent in its assumption of superiority, which was borne out by the little defiant tapping of two long white fingers upon the arm of the carved chair. And yet, with the rising inflection of the monosyllable there went a raising of the brows, a sidelong glance of the eyes, a slowly wreathing smile that curved the fresh lips just enough to unmask two perfect teeth, all of which lent to the voice a meaning, a familiarity, a pliant possibility of favourable interpretation, fit rather to flatter a hope than to chill a passion.
The blood beat more fiercely in the young man's veins, his black eyes gleamed yet more brightly, his pale, high-curved nostrils quivered at every breath he drew. The throbbings of his heart unseated his thoughts and strongly took possession of the government of his body. Under an irresistible impulse he fell upon his knees beside Unorna, covering her marble hand with all his lean, dark fingers and pressing his forehead upon them, as though he had found and grasped all that could be dear to him in life.
"Unorna! My golden Unorna!" he cried, as he knelt.
Unorna looked down upon his bent head. The smile faded from her face, and for a moment a look of hardness lingered there, which gave way to an expression of pain and regret. As though collecting her thoughts she closed her eyes, as she tried to draw back her hand; then as he held it still, she leaned back and spoke to him.
"You have not understood me," she said, as quietly as she could.
The strong fingers were not lifted from hers, but the white face, now bloodless and transparent, was raised to hers, and a look of such fear as she had never dreamed of was in the wide black eyes.
"Not--understood?" he repeated in startled, broken tones.
Unorna sighed, and turned away, for the sight hurt her and accused her.
"No, you have not understood. Is it my fault? Israel Kafka, that hand is not yours to hold."
"Not mine? Unorna!" Yet he could not quite believe what she said.
"I am in earnest," she answered, not without a lingering tenderness in the intonation. "Do you think I am jesting with you, or with myself?"
Neither of the two stirred during the silence which followed. Unorna sat quite still, staring fixedly into the green shadows of the foliage, as though not daring to meet the gaze she felt upon her. Israel Kafka still knelt beside her, motionless and hardly breathing, like a dangerous wild animal startled by an unexpected enemy, and momentarily paralysed in the very act of springing, whether backward in flight, or forward in the teeth of the foe, it is not possible to guess.
"I have been mistaken," Unorna continued at last. "Forgive--forget--"
Israel Kafka rose to his feet and drew back a step from her side. All his movements were smooth and graceful. The perfect man is most beautiful in motion, the perfect woman in repose.
"How easy it is for you!" exclaimed the Moravian. "How easy! How simple! You call me, and I come. You let your eyes rest on me, and I kneel before you. You sigh, and I speak words of love. You lift your hand and I crouch at your feet. You frown--and I humbly leave you. How easy!"
"You are wrong, and you speak foolishly. You are angry, and you do not weigh your words."
"Angry! What have I to do with so common a madness as anger? I am more than angry. Do you think that because I have submitted to the veering gusts of your good and evil humours these many months, I have lost all consciousness of myself? Do you think that you can blow upon me as upon a feather, from east and west, from north and south, hotly or coldly, as your unstable nature moves you? Have you promised me nothing? Have you given me no hope? Have you said and done nothing whereby you are bound? Or can no pledge bind you, no promise find a foothold in your slippery memory, no word of yours have meaning for those who hear it?"
"I never gave you either pledge or promise," answered Unorna in a harder tone. "The only hope I have ever extended to you was this, that I would one day answer you plainly. I have done so. You are not satisfied. Is there anything more to be said? I do not bid you leave my house for ever, any more than I mean to drive you from my friendship."
"From your friendship! Ah, I thank you, Unorna; I most humbly thank you! For the mercy you extend in allowing me to linger near you, I am grateful! Your friend, you say? Ay, truly, your friend and servant, your servant and your slave, your slave and your dog. Is the friend impatient and dissatisfied with his lot? A soft word shall turn away his anger. Is the servant over-presumptuous? Your scorn will soon teach him his duty. Is the slave disobedient? Blows will cure him of his faults. Does your dog fawn upon you too familiarly? Thrust him from you with your foot and he will cringe and cower till you smile again. Your friendship--I have no words for thanks!"
"Take it, or take it not--as you will." Unorna glanced at his angry face and quickly looked away.
"Take it? Yes, and more too, whether you will give it or not," answered Israel Kafka, moving nearer to her. "Yes. Whether you will, or whether you will not, I have all, your friendship, your love, your life, your breath, your soul--all, or nothing!"
"You are wise to suggest the latter alternative as a possibility," said Unorna coldly and not heeding his approach.
The young man stood still, and folded his arms. The colour had returned to his face and a deep flush was rising under his olive skin.
"Do you mean what you say?" he asked slowly. "Do you mean that I shall not have all, but nothing? Do you still dare to mean that, after all that has passed between you and me?"
Unorna raised her eyes and looked steadily into his.
"Israel Kafka, do not speak to me of daring."
But the young man's glance did not waver. The angry expression of his features did not relax; he neither drew back nor bent his head. Unorna seemed to be exerting all the strength of her will in the attempt to dominate him, but without result. In the effort she made to concentrate her determination her face grew pale and her lips trembled. Kafka faced her resolutely, his eyes on fire, the rich colour mantling in his cheeks.
"Where is your power now?" he asked suddenly. "Where is your witchery? You are only a woman, after all. You are only a weak woman!"
Very slowly he drew nearer to her side, his lithe figure bending a little as he looked down upon her. Unorna leaned far back, withdrawing her face from his as far as she could, but still trying to impose her will upon him.
"You cannot," he said between his teeth, answering her thought.
Men who have tamed wild beasts alone know what such a moment is like. A hundred times the brave man has held the tiger spell-bound and crouching under his cold, fearless gaze. The beast, ever docile and submissive, has cringed at his feet, fawned to his touch, and licked the hand that snatched away the half-devoured morsel. Obedient to voice and eye, the giant strength and sinewy grace have been debased to make the sport of multitudes; the noble, pliant frame has contorted itself to execute the mean antics of the low-comedy ape--to counterfeit death like a poodle dog; to leap through gaudily-painted rings at the word of command; to fetch and carry like a spaniel. A hundred times the changing crowd has paid its paltry fee to watch the little play that is daily acted behind the stout iron bars by the man and the beast. The man, the nobler, braver creature, is arrayed in a wretched flimsy finery of tights and spangles, parading his physical weakness and inferiority in the toggery of a mountebank. The tiger, vast, sleepy-eyed, mysterious, lies motionless in the front of his cage, the gorgeous stripes of his velvet coat following each curve of his body, from the cushions of his great fore paws to the arch of his gathered haunches. The watchfulness and flexible activity of the serpent and the strength that knows no master are clothed in the magnificent robes of the native-born sovereign. Time and times again the beautiful giant has gone through the slavish round of his mechanical tricks, obedient to the fragile creature of intelligence, to the little dwarf, man, whose power is in his eyes and heart only. He is accustomed to the lights, to the spectators, to the laughter, to the applause, to the frightened scream of the hysterical women in the audience, to the close air and to the narrow stage behind the bars. The tamer in his tights and tinsel has grown used to his tiger, to his emotions, to his hourly danger. He even finds at last that his mind wanders during the performance, and that at the very instant when he is holding the ring for the leap, or thrusting his head into the beast's fearful jaws, he is thinking of his wife, of his little child, of his domestic happiness or household troubles, rather than of what he is doing. Many times, perhaps many hundreds of times, all passes off quietly and successfully. Then, inevitably, comes the struggle. Who can tell the causes? The tiger is growing old, or is ill fed, or is not well, or is merely in one of those evil humours to which animals are subject as well as their masters. One day he refuses to go through with the performance. First one trick fails, and then another. The public grows impatient, the man in spangles grows nervous, raises his voice, stamps loudly with his foot, and strikes his terrible slave with his light switch. A low, deep sound breaks from the enormous throat, the spectators hold their breath, the huge, flexible limbs are gathered for the leap, and in the gaslight and the dead silence man and beast are face to face. Life hangs in the balance, and death is at the door.
Then the tamer's heart beats loud, his chest heaves, his brows are furrowed. Even then, in the instant that still separates him from triumph or destruction, the thought of his sleeping child or of his watching wife darts through his brain. But the struggle has begun and there is no escape. One of two things must happen: he must overcome or he must die. To draw back, to let his glance waver, to show so much as the least sign of fear, is death. The moment is supreme, and he knows it.
Unorna grasped the arms of her chair as though seeking for physical support in her extremity. She could not yield. Before her eyes arose a vision unlike the reality in all its respects. She saw an older face, a taller figure, a look of deeper thought between her and the angry man who was trying to conquer her resistance with a glance. Between her and her mistake the image of what should be stood out, bright, vivid, and strong. A new conviction had taken the place of the old, a real passion was flaming upon the altar whereon she had fed with dreams the semblance of a sacred fire.
"You do not really love me," she said softly.
Israel Kafka started, as a man who is struck unawares. The monstrous untruth which filled the words broke down his guard, sudden tears veiled the penetrating sharpness of his gaze, and his hand trembled.
"I do not love you? I! Unorna--Unorna!"
The first words broke from him in a cry of horror and stupefaction. But her name, when he spoke it, sounded as the death moan of a young wild animal wounded beyond all power to turn at bay.
He moved unsteadily and laid hold of the tall chair in which she sat. He was behind her now, standing, but bending down so that his forehead pressed his fingers. He could not bear to look upon her hair, still less upon her face. Even his hands were white and bloodless. Unorna could hear his quick breathing just above her shoulder. She sat quite still, and her lips were smiling, though her brow was thoughtful and almost sad. She knew that the struggle was over and that she had gained the mastery, though the price of victory might be a broken heart.
"You thought I was jesting," she said in a low voice, looking before her into the deep foliage, but knowing that her softest whisper would reach him. "But there was no jest in what I said--nor any unkindness in what I meant, though it is all my fault. But that is true--you never loved me as I would be loved."
"No, I am not unkind. Your love is young, fierce, inconstant; half terrible, half boyish, aflame to-day, asleep to-morrow, ready to turn into hatred at one moment, to melt into tears at the next, intermittent, unstable as water, fleeting as a cloud's shadow on the mountain side--"
"It pleased you once," said Israel Kafka in broken tones. "It is not less love because you are weary of it, and of me."
"Weary, you say? No, not weary--and very truly not of you. You will believe that to-day, to-morrow, you will still try to force life into your belief--and then it will be dead and gone like all thoughts which have never entered into the shapes of reality. We have not loved each other. We have but fancied that it would be sweet to love, and the knife of truth has parted the web of our dreams, keenly, in the midst, so that we see before us what is, though the ghost of what might have been is yet lingering near."
"Who wove that web, Unorna? You, or I?" He lifted his heavy eyes and gazed at her coiled hair.
"What matters it whether it was your doing or mine? But we wove it together--and together we must see the truth."
"If this is true, there is no more 'together' for you and me."
"We may yet glean friendship in the fields where love has grown."
"Friendship! The very word is a wound! Friendship! The very dregs and lees of the wine of life! Friendship! The sour drainings of the heart's cup, left to moisten the lips of the damned when the blessed have drunk their fill! I hate the word, as I hate the thought!"
Unorna sighed, partly, perhaps, that he might hear the sigh, and put upon it an interpretation soothing to his vanity, but partly, too, from a sincere regret that he should need to suffer as he was evidently suffering. She had half believed that she loved him, and she owed him pity. Women's hearts pay such debts unwillingly, but they do pay them, nevertheless. She wished that she had never set eyes upon Israel Kafka; she wished that she might never see him again; even his death would hardly have cost her a pang, and yet she was sorry for him. Diana, the huntress, shot her arrows with unfailing aim; Diana, the goddess, may have sighed and shed one bright immortal tear, as she looked into the fast-glazing eyes of the dying stag--may not Diana, the maiden, have felt a touch of human sympathy and pain as she listened to the deep note of her hounds baying on poor Actaeon's track! No one is all bad, or all good. No woman is all earthly, nor any goddess all divine.
"I am sorry," said Unorna. "You will not understand----"
"I have understood enough. I have understood that a woman can have two faces and two hearts, two minds, two souls; it is enough, my understanding need go no farther. You sighed before you spoke. It was not for me; it was for yourself. You never felt pain or sorrow for another."
He was trying hard to grow cold and to find cold words to say, which might lead her to believe him stronger than he was and able to master his grief. But he was too young, too hot, too changeable for such a part. Moreover, in his first violent outbreak Unorna had dominated him, and he could not now regain the advantage.
"You are wrong, Israel Kafka. You would make me less than human. If I sighed, it was indeed for you. See--I confess that I have done you wrong, not in deeds, but in letting you hope. Truly, I myself have hoped also. I have thought that the star of love was trembling just below the east, and that you and I might be one to another--what we cannot be now. My wisdom has failed me, my sight has been deceived. Am I the only woman in this world who has been mistaken? Can you not forgive? If I had promised, if I had said one word--and yet, you are right, too, for I have let you think in earnest what has been but a passing dream of my own thoughts. It was all wrong; it was all my fault. There, lay your hand in mine and say that you forgive, as I ask forgiveness."
He was still standing behind her, leaning against the back of her chair. Without looking round she raised her hand above her shoulder as though seeking for his. But he would not take it.
"Is it so hard?" she asked softly. "Is it even harder for you to give than for me to ask? Shall we part like this--not to meet again--each bearing a wound, when both might be whole? Can you not say the word?"
"What is it to you whether I forgive you or not?"
"Since I ask it, believe that it is much to me," she answered, slowly turning her head until, without catching sight of his face, she could just see where his fingers were resting on her chair. Then, over her shoulder, she touched them, and drew them to her cheek. He made no resistance.
"Shall we part without one kind thought?" Her voice was softer still and so low and sweet that it seemed as though the words were spoken in the ripple of the tiny fountain. There was magic in the place, in the air, in the sounds, above all in the fair woman's touch.
"Is this friendship?" asked Kafka. Then he sank upon his knees beside her, and looked up into her face.
"It is friendship; yes--why not? Am I like other women?"
"Then why need there be any parting?"
"If you will be my friend there need be none. You have forgiven me now --I see it in your eyes. Is it not true?"
He was at her feet, passive at last under the superior power which he had never been able to resist. Unorna's fascination was upon him, and he could only echo her words, as he would have executed her slightest command, without consciousness of free will or individual thought. It was enough that for one moment his anger should cease to give life to his resistance; it was sufficient that Unorna should touch him thus, and speak softly, his eyelids quivered and his look became fixed, his strength was absorbed in hers and incapable of acting except under her direction. So long as she might please the spell would endure.
"Sit beside me now, and let us talk," she said.
Like a man in a dream, he rose and sat down near her.
Unorna laughed, and there was something in the tone that was not good to hear. A moment earlier it would have wounded Israel Kafka to the quick and brought the hot, angry blood to his face. Now he laughed with her, vacantly, as though not knowing the cause of his mirth.
"You are only my slave, after all," said Unorna scornfully.
"I am only your slave, after all," he repeated.
"I could touch you with my hand and you would hate me, and forget that you ever loved me."
This time the man was silent. There was a contraction of pain in his face, as though a violent mental struggle were going on within him. Unorna tapped the pavement impatiently with her foot and bent her brows.
"You would hate me and forget that you ever loved me," she repeated, dwelling on each word as though to impress it on his consciousness. "Say it. I order you."
The contraction of his features disappeared.
"I should hate you and forget that I ever loved you," he said slowly.
"You never loved me."
"I never loved you."
Again Unorna laughed, and he joined in her laughter, unintelligently, as he had done before. She leaned back in her seat, and her face grew grave. Israel Kafka sat motionless in his chair, staring at her with unwinking eyes. But his gaze did not disturb her. There was no more meaning in it than in the expression of a marble statue, far less than in that of a painted portrait. Yet the man was alive and in the full strength of his magnificent youth, supple, active, fierce by nature, able to have killed her with his hands in the struggle of a moment. Yet she knew that without a word from her he could neither turn his head nor move in his seat.
For a long time Unorna was absorbed in her meditations. Again and again the vision of a newer happiness took shape and colour before her, so clearly and vividly that she could have clasped it and held it and believed in its reality, as she had done before Israel Kafka had entered. But there was a doubt now, which constantly arose between her and it, the dark and shapeless shadow of a reasoning she hated and yet knew to be strong.
"I must ask him," she said unconsciously.
"You must ask him," repeated Israel Kafka from his seat.
For the third time Unorna laughed aloud as she heard the echo of her own words.
"Whom shall I ask?" she inquired contemptuously, as she rose to her feet.
The dull, glassy eyes sought hers in painful perplexity, following her face as she moved.
"I do not know," answered the powerless man.
Unorna came close to him and laid her hand upon his head.
"Sleep, until I wake you," she said.
The eyelids drooped and closed at her command, and instantly the man's breathing became heavy and regular. Unorna's full lips curled as she looked down at him.
"And you would be my master!" she exclaimed.
Then she turned and disappeared among the plants, leaving him alone.