The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
Unorna passed through a corridor which was, indeed, only a long balcony covered in with arches and closed with windows against the outer air. At the farther end three steps descended to a dark door, through the thickness of a massive wall, showing that at this point Unorna's house had at some former time been joined with another building beyond, with which it thus formed one habitation. Unorna paused, holding the key as though hesitating whether she should put it into the lock. It was evident that much depended upon her decision, for her face expressed the anxiety she felt. Once she turned away, as though to abandon her intention, hesitated, and then, with an impatient frown, opened the door and went in. She passed through a small, well-lighted vestibule and entered the room beyond.
The apartment was furnished with luxury, but a stranger would have received an oddly disquieting impression of the whole at a first glance. There was everything in the place which is considered necessary for a bedroom, and everything was perfect of its kind, spotless and dustless, and carefully arranged in order. But almost everything was of an unusual and unfamiliar shape, as though designed for some especial reason to remain in equilibrium in any possible position, and to be moved from place to place with the smallest imaginable physical effort. The carved bedstead was fitted with wheels which did not touch the ground, and levers so placed as to be within the reach of a person lying in it. The tables were each supported at one end only by one strong column, fixed to a heavy base set on broad rollers, so that the board could be run across a bed or a lounge with the greatest ease. There was but one chair made like ordinary chairs; the rest were so constructed that the least motion of the occupant must be accompanied by a corresponding change of position of the back and arms, and some of them bore a curious resemblance to a surgeon's operating table, having attachments of silver-plated metal at many points, of which the object was not immediately evident. Before a closed door a sort of wheeled conveyance, partaking of the nature of a chair and of a perambulator, stood upon polished rails, which disappeared under the door itself, showing that the thing was intended to be moved from one room to another in a certain way and in a fixed line. The rails, had the door been opened, would have been seen to descend upon the other side by a gentle inclined plane into the centre of a huge marble basin, and the contrivance thus made it possible to wheel a person into a bath and out again without necessitating the slightest effort or change of position in the body. In the bedroom the windows were arranged so that the light and air could be regulated to a nicety. The walls were covered with fine basket work, apparently adapted in panels; but these panels were in reality movable trays, as it were, forming shallow boxes fitted with closely-woven wicker covers, and filled with charcoal and other porous substances intended to absorb the impurities of the air, and thus easily changed and renewed from time to time. Immediately beneath the ceiling were placed delicate glass globes of various soft colours, with silken shades, movable from below by means of brass rods and handles. In the ceiling itself there were large ventilators, easily regulated as might be required, and there was a curious arrangement of rails and wheels from which depended a sort of swing, apparently adapted for moving a person or a weight to different parts of the room without touching the floor. In one of the lounges, not far from the window, lay a colossal old man, wrapped in a loose robe of warm white stuff, and fast asleep.
He was a very old man, so old, indeed, as to make it hard to guess his age from his face and his hands, the only parts visible as he lay at rest, the vast body and limbs lying motionless under his garment, as beneath a heavy white pall. He could not be less than a hundred years old, but how much older than that he might really be, it was impossible to say. What might be called the waxen period had set in, and the high colourless features seemed to be modelled in that soft, semi-transparent material. The time had come when the stern furrows of age had broken up into countless minutely-traced lines, so close and fine as to seem a part of the texture of the skin, mere shadings, evenly distributed throughout, and no longer affecting the expression of the face as the deep wrinkles had done in former days; at threescore and ten, at fourscore, and even at ninety years. The century that had passed had taken with it its marks and scars, leaving the great features in their original purity of design, lean, smooth, and clearly defined. That last change in living man is rare enough, but when once seen is not to be forgotten. There is something in the faces of the very, very old which hardly suggests age at all, but rather the vague possibility of a returning prime. Only the hands tell the tale, with their huge, shining, fleshless joints, their shadowy hollows, and their unnatural yellow nails.
The old man lay quite still, breathing softly through his snowy beard. Unorna came to his side. There was something of wonder and admiration in her own eyes as she stood there gazing upon the face which other generations of men and women, all long dead, had looked upon and known. The secret of life and death was before her each day when she entered that room, and on the very verge of solution. The wisdom hardly gained in many lands was striving with all its concentrated power to preserve that life; the rare and subtle gifts which she herself possessed were daily exercised to their full in the suggestion of vitality; the most elaborate inventions of skilled mechanicians were employed in reducing the labour of living to the lowest conceivable degree of effort. The great experiment was being tried. What Keyork Arabian described as the embalming of a man still alive was being attempted. And he lived. For years they had watched him and tended him, and looked critically for the least signs of a diminution or an augmentation in his strength. They knew that he was now in his one hundred and seventh year, and yet he lived and was no weaker. Was there a limit; or was there not, since the destruction of the tissues was arrested beyond doubt, so far as the most minute tests could show? Might there not be, in the slow oscillations of nature, a degree of decay, on this side of death, from which a return should be possible, provided that the critical moment were passed in a state of sleep and under perfect conditions? How do we know that all men must die? We suppose the statement to be true by induction, from the undoubted fact that men have hitherto died within a certain limit of age. By induction, too, our fathers, our grandfathers, knew that it was impossible for man to traverse the earth faster than at the full speed of a galloping horse. After several thousand years of experience that piece of knowledge, which seemed to be singularly certain, was suddenly proved to be the grossest ignorance by a man who had been in the habit of playing with a tea-kettle when a boy. We ourselves, not very long ago, knew positively, as all men had known since the beginning of the world, that it was quite impossible to converse with a friend at a distance beyond the carrying power of a speaking trumpet. To-day, a boy who does not know that one may talk very agreeably with a friend a thousand miles away is an ignoramus; and experimenters whisper among themselves that, if the undulatory theory of light have any foundation, there is no real reason why we may not see that same friend at that same distance, as well as talk with him. Ten years ago we were quite sure that it was beyond the bounds of natural possibility to produce a bad burn upon the human body by touching the flesh with a bit of cardboard or a common lead pencil. Now we know with equal certainty that if upon one arm of a hypnotised patient we impress a letter of the alphabet cut out of wood, telling him that it is red-hot iron, the shape of the letter will on the following day be found on a raw and painful wound not only in the place we selected but on the other arm, in the exactly corresponding spot, and reversed as though seen in a looking-glass; and we very justly consider that a physician who does not know this and similar facts is dangerously behind the times, since the knowledge is open to all. The inductive reasoning of many thousands of years has been knocked to pieces in the last century by a few dozen men who have reasoned little but attempted much. It would be rash to assert that bodily death may not some day, and under certain conditions, be altogether escaped. It is nonsense to pretend that human life may not possibly, and before long, be enormously prolonged, and that by some shorter cut to longevity than temperance and sanitation. No man can say that it will, but no man of average intelligence can now deny that it may.
Unorna had hesitated at the door, and she hesitated now. It was in her power, and in hers only, to wake the hoary giant, or at least to modify his perpetual sleep so far as to obtain from him answers to her questions. It would be an easy matter to lay one hand upon his brow, bidding him see and speak--how easy, she alone knew. But on the other hand, to disturb his slumber was to interfere with the continuity of the great experiment, to break through a rule lately made, to incur the risk of an accident, if not of death itself.
She drew back at the thought, as though fearing to startle him, and then she smiled at her own nervousness. To wake him she must exercise her will. There was no danger of his ever being roused by any sound or touch not proceeding from herself. The crash of thunder had no reverberation for his ears, the explosion of a cannon would not have penetrated into his lethargy. She might touch him, move him, even speak to him, but unless she laid her hand upon his waxen forehead and bid him feel and hear, he would be as unconscious as the dead. She returned to his side and gazed into his placid face. Strange faculties were asleep in that ancient brain, and strange wisdom was stored there, gathered from many sources long ago, and treasured unconsciously by the memory to be recalled at her command.
The man had been a failure in his day, a scholar, a student, a searcher after great secrets, a wanderer in the labyrinths of higher thought. He had been a failure and had starved, as failures must, in order that vulgar success may fatten and grow healthy. He had outlived the few that had been dear to him, he had outlived the power to feed on thought, he had outlived generations of men, and cycles of changes, and yet there had been life left in the huge gaunt limbs and sight in the sunken eyes. Then he had outlived pride itself, and the ancient scholar had begged his bread. In his hundredth year he had leaned for rest against Unorna's door, and she had taken him in and cared for him, and since that time she had preserved his life. For his history was known in the ancient city, and it was said that he had possessed great wisdom in his day. Unorna knew that this wisdom could be hers if she could keep alive the spark of life, and that she could employ his own learning to that end. Already she had much experience of her powers, and knew that if she once had the mastery of the old man's free will he must obey her fatally and unresistingly. Then she conceived the idea of embalming, as it were, the living being, in a perpetual hypnotic lethargy, from whence she recalled him from time to time to an intermediate state, in which she caused him to do mechanically all those things which she judged necessary to prolong life.
Seeing her success from the first, she had begun to fancy that the present condition of things might be made to continue indefinitely. Since death was to-day no nearer than it had been seven years ago, there was no reason why it might not be guarded against during seven years more, and if during seven, why not during ten, twenty, fifty? She had for a helper a physician of consummate practical skill--a man whose interest in the result of the trial was, if anything, more keen than her own; a friend, above all, whom she believed she might trust, and who appeared to trust her.
But in the course of their great experiment they had together made rules by which they had mutually agreed to be bound. They had of late determined that the old man must not be disturbed in his profound rest by any question tending to cause a state of mental activity. The test of a very fine instrument had proved that the shortest interval of positive lucidity was followed by a slight but distinctly perceptible rise of temperature in the body, and this could mean only a waste of the precious tissues they were so carefully preserving. They hoped and believed that the grand crisis was at hand, and that, if the body did not now lose strength and vitality for a considerable time, both would slowly though surely increase, in consequence of the means they were using to instill new blood into the system. But the period was supreme, and to interfere in any way with the progress of the experiment was to run a risk of which the whole extent could only be realised by Unorna and her companion.
She hesitated therefore, well knowing that her ally would oppose her intention with all his might, and dreading his anger, bold as she was, almost as much as she feared the danger to the old man's life. On the other hand, she had a motive which the physician could not have, and which, as she was aware, he would have despised and condemned. She had a question to ask, which she considered of vital importance to herself, to which she firmly believed that the true answer would be given, and which, in her womanly impetuosity and impatience, she could not bear to leave unasked until the morrow, much less until months should have passed away. Two very powerful incentives were at work, two of the very strongest which have influence with mankind, love and a superstitious belief in an especial destiny of happiness, at the present moment on the very verge of realisation.
She believed profoundly in herself and in the suggestions of her own imagination. So fixed and unalterable was that belief that it amounted to positive knowledge, so far as it constituted a motive of action. In her strange youth wild dreams had possessed her, and some of them, often dreamed again, had become realities to her now. Her powers were natural, those gifts which from time to time are seen in men and women, which are alternately scoffed at as impostures, or accepted as facts, but which are never understood either by their possessor or by those who witness the results. She had from childhood the power to charm with eye and hand all living things, the fascination which takes hold of the consciousness through sight and touch and word, and lulls it to sleep. It was witchery, and she was called a witch. In earlier centuries her hideous fate would have been sealed from the first day when, under her childish gaze, a wolf that had been taken alive in the Bohemian forest crawled fawning to her feet, at the full length of its chain, and laid its savage head under her hand, and closed its bloodshot eyes and slept before her. Those who had seen had taken her and taught her how to use what she possessed according to their own shadowy beliefs and dim traditions of the half-forgotten magic in a distant land. They had filled her heart with longings and her brain with dreams, and she had grown up to believe that one day love would come suddenly upon her and bear her away through the enchanted gates of the earthly paradise; once only that love would come, and the supreme danger of her life would be that she should not know it when it was at hand.
And now she knew that she loved, for the place of her fondness for the one man had been taken by her passion for the other, and she felt without reasoning, where, before, she had tried to reason herself into feeling. The moment had come. She had seen the man in whom her happiness was to be, the time was short, the danger great if she should not grasp what her destiny would offer her but once. Had the Wanderer been by her side, she would have needed to ask no question, she would have known and been satisfied. But hours must pass before she could see him again, and every minute spent without him grew more full of anxiety and disturbing passion than the last. The wild love- blossom that springs into existence in a single moment has elements which do not enter into the gentler being of that other love which is sown in indifference, and which grows up in slowly increasing interest, tended and refreshed in the pleasant intercourse of close acquaintance, to bud and bloom at last as a mild-scented garden flower. Love at first sight is impatient, passionate, ruthless, cruel, as the year would be, if from the calendar of the season the months of slow transition were struck out; if the raging heat of August followed in one day upon the wild tempests of the winter; if the fruit of the vine but yesterday in leaf grew rich and black to-day, to be churned to foam to-morrow under the feet of the laughing wine treaders.
Unorna felt that the day would be intolerable if she could not hear from other lips the promise of a predestined happiness. She was not really in doubt, but she was under the imperious impulse of a passion which must needs find some response, even in the useless confirmation of its reality uttered by an indifferent person--the spirit of a mighty cry seeking its own echo in the echoless, flat waste of the Great Desert.
Then, too, she placed a sincere faith in the old man's answers to her questions, regardless of the matter inquired into. She believed that in the mysterious condition between sleep and waking which she could command, the knowledge of things to be was with him as certainly as the memory of what had been and of what was even now passing in the outer world. To her, the one direction of the faculty seemed no less possible than the others, though she had not yet attained alone to the vision of the future. Hitherto the old man's utterances had been fulfilled to the letter. More than once, as Keyork Arabian had hinted, she had consulted his second sight in preference to her own, and she had not been deceived. His greater learning and his vast experience lent to his sayings something divine in her eyes; she looked upon him as the Pythoness of Delphi looked upon the divinity of her inspiration.
The irresistible longing to hear the passionate pleadings of her own heart solemnly confirmed by the voice in which she trusted overcame at last every obstacle. Unorna bent over the sleeper, looking earnestly into his face, and she laid one hand upon his brow.
"You hear me," she said, slowly and distinctly. "You are conscious of thought, and you see into the future."
The massive head stirred, the long limbs moved uneasily under the white robe, the enormous, bony hands contracted, and in the cavernous eyes the great lids were slowly lifted. A dull stare met her look.
"Is it he?" she asked, speaking more quickly in spite of herself. "Is it he at last?"
There was no answer. The lips did not part, there was not even the attempt to speak. She had been sure that the one word would be spoken unhesitatingly, and the silence startled her and brought back the doubt which she had half forgotten.
"You must answer my question. I command you to answer me. Is it he?"
"You must tell me more before I can answer."
The words came in a feeble piping voice, strangely out of keeping with the colossal frame and imposing features.
Unorna's face was clouded, and the ready gleam of anger flashed in her eyes as it ever did at the smallest opposition to her will.
"Can you not see him?" she asked impatiently.
"I cannot see him unless you lead me to him and tell me where he is."
"Where are you?"
"In your mind."
"And what are you?"
"I am the image in your eyes."
"There is another man in my mind," said Unorna. "I command you to see him."
"I see him. He is tall, pale, noble, suffering. You love him."
"Is it he who shall be my life and my death? Is it he who shall love me as other women are not loved?"
The weak voice was still for a moment, and the face seemed covered with a veil of perplexity.
"I see with your eyes," said the old man at last.
"And I command you to see into the future with your own!" cried Unorna, concentrating her terrible will as she grew more impatient.
There was an evident struggle in the giant's mind, an effort to obey which failed to break down an obstacle. She bent over him eagerly and her whole consciousness was centered in the words she desired him to speak.
Suddenly the features relaxed into an expression of rest and satisfaction. There was something unearthly in the sudden smile that flickered over the old waxen face--it was as strange and unnatural as though the cold marble effigy upon a sepulchre had laughed aloud in the gloom of an empty church.
"I see. He will love you," said the tremulous tones.
"Then it is he?"
"It is he."
With a suppressed cry of triumph Unorna lifted her head and stood upright. Then she started violently and grew very pale.
"You have probably killed him and spoiled everything," said a rich bass voice at her elbow--the very sub-bass of all possible voices.
Keyork Arabian was beside her. In her intense excitement she had not heard him enter the room, and he had surprised her at once in the breaking of their joint convention and in the revelation of her secret. If Unorna could be said to know the meaning of the word fear in any degree whatsoever, it was in relation to Keyork Arabian, the man who during the last few years had been her helper and associate in the great experiment. Of all men she had known in her life, he was the only one whom she felt to be beyond the influence of her powers, the only one whom she felt that she could not charm by word, or touch, or look. The odd shape of his head, she fancied, figured the outline and proportions of his intelligence, which was, as it were, pyramidal, standing upon a base so broad and firm as to place the centre of its ponderous gravity far beyond her reach to disturb. There was certainly no other being of material reality that could have made Unorna start and turn pale by its inopportune appearance.
"The best thing you can do is to put him to sleep at once," said the little man. "You can be angry afterwards, and, I thank heaven, so can I--and shall."
"Forget," said Unorna, once more laying her hand upon the waxen brow. "Let it be as though I had not spoken with you. Drink, in your sleep, of the fountain of life, take new strength into your body and new blood into your heart. Live, and when I next wake you be younger by as many months as there shall pass hours till then. Sleep."
A low sigh trembled in the hoary beard. The eyelids drooped over the sunken eyes, there was a slight motion of the limbs, and all was still, save for the soft and regular breathing.
"The united patience of the seven archangels, coupled with that of Job and Simon Stylites, would not survive your acquaintance for a day," observed Keyork Arabian.
"Is he mine or yours?" Unorna asked, turning to him and pointing to the sleeper.
She was quite ready to face her companion after the first shock of his unexpected appearance. His small blue eyes sparkled angrily.
"I am not versed in the law concerning real estate in human kind in the Kingdom of Bohemia," he answered. "You may have property in a couple of hundredweight, more or less, of old bones rather the worse for the wear and tear of a century, but I certainly have some ownership in the life. Without me, you would have been the possessor of a remarkably fine skeleton by this time--and of nothing more."
As he spoke, his extraordinary voice ran over half a dozen notes of portentous depth, like the opening of a fugue on the pedals of an organ. Unorna laughed scornfully.
"He is mine, Keyork Arabian, alive or dead. If the experiment fails, and he dies, the loss is mine, not yours. Moreover, what I have done is done, and I will neither submit to your reproaches nor listen to your upbraidings. Is that enough?"
"Of its kind, quite. I will build an altar to Ingratitude, we will bury our friend beneath the shrine, and you shall serve in the temple. You could deify all the cardinal sins if you would only give your attention to the subject, merely by the monstrously imposing proportions you would know how to give them."
"Does it ease you to make such an amazing noise?" inquired Unorna, raising her eyebrows.
"Immensely. Our friend cannot hear it, and you can. You dare to tell me that if he dies you are the only loser. Do fifty years of study count for nothing? Look at me. I am an old man, and unless I find the secret of life here, in this very room, before many years are over, I must die--die, do you understand? Do you know what it means to die? How can you comprehend that word--you girl, you child, you thing of five and twenty summers!"
"It was to be supposed that your own fears were at the root of your anger," observed Unorna, sitting down upon her chair and calmly folding her hands as though to wait until the storm should pass over.
"Is there anything at the root of anything except Self? You moth, you butterfly, you thread of floating gossamer! How can you understand the incalculable value of Self--of that which is all to me and nothing to you, or which, being yours, is everything to you and to me nothing? You are so young--you still believe in things, and interests, and good and evil, and love and hate, truth and falsehood, and a hundred notions which are not facts, but only contrasts between one self and another! What were you doing here when I found you playing with life and death, perhaps with my life, for a gipsy trick, in the crazy delusion that this old parcel of humanity can see the shadows of things which are not yet? I saw, I heard. How could he answer anything save that which was in your own mind, when you were forcing him with your words and your eyes to make a reply of some sort, or perish? Ah! You see now. You understand now. I have opened your eyes a little. Why did he hesitate, and suffer? Because you asked that to which he knew there was no answer. And you tortured him with your will until his individuality fell into yours, and spoke your words."
Unorna's head sank a little and she covered her eyes. The truth of what he said flashed upon her suddenly and unexpectedly, bringing with it the doubt which had left her at the moment when the sleeper had spoken. She could not hide her discomfiture and Keyork Arabian saw his advantage.
"And for what?" he asked, beginning to pace the broad room. "To know whether a man will love you or not! You seem to have forgotten what you are. Is not such a poor and foolish thing as love at the command of those who can say to the soul, be this, or be that, and who are obeyed? Have you found a second Keyork Arabian, over whom your eyes have no power--neither the one nor the other?"
He laughed rather brutally at the thought of her greatest physical peculiarity, but then suddenly stopped short. She had lifted her face and those same eyes were fastened upon him, the black and the gray, in a look so savage and fierce that even he was checked, if not startled.
"They are certainly very remarkable eyes," he said, more calmly, and with a certain uneasiness which Unorna did not notice. "I wonder whom you have found who is able to look you in the face without losing himself. I suppose it can hardly be my fascinating self whom you wish to enthrall," he added, conscious after a moment's trial that he was proof against her influence.
"Hardly," answered Unorna, with a bitter laugh.
"If I were the happy man you would not need that means of bringing me to your feet. It is a pity that you do not want me. We should make a very happy couple. But there is much against me. I am an old man, Unorna. My figure was never of divine proportions, and as for my face, Nature made it against her will. I know all that--and yet, I was young once, and eloquent. I could make love then--I believe that I could still if it would amuse you."
"Try it," said Unorna, who, like most people, could not long be angry with the gnome-like little sage.