The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
"I could make love--yes, and since you tell me to try, I will."
He came and stood before her, straightening his diminutive figure in a comical fashion as though he were imitating a soldier on parade.
"In the first place," he said, "in order to appreciate my skill, you should realise the immense disadvantages under which I labour. I am a dwarf, my dear Unorna. In the presence of that kingly wreck of a Homeric man"--he pointed to the sleeper beside them--"I am a Thersites, if not a pigmy. To have much chance of success I should ask you to close your eyes, and to imagine that my stature matches my voice. That gift at least, I flatter myself, would have been appreciated on the plains of Troy. But in other respects I resemble neither the long-haired Greeks nor the trousered Trojans. I am old and hideous, and in outward appearance I am as like Socrates as in inward disposition I am totally different from him. Admit, since I admit it, that I am the ugliest and smallest man of your acquaintance."
"It is not to be denied," said Unorna with a smile.
"The admission will make the performance so much the more interesting. And now, as the conjurer says when he begins, observe that there is no deception. That is the figure of speech called lying, because there is to be nothing but deception from beginning to end. Did you ever consider the nature of a lie, Unorna? It is a very interesting subject."
"I thought you were going to make love to me."
"True; how easily one forgets those little things! And yet no woman ever forgave a man who forgot to make love when she expected him to do so. For a woman, who is a woman, never forgets to be exigent. And now there is no reprieve, for I have committed myself, am sentenced, and condemned to be made ridiculous in your eyes. Can there be anything more contemptible, more laughable, more utterly and hopelessly absurd, than an old and ugly man declaring his unrequited passion for a woman who might be his granddaughter? Is he not like a hoary old owl, who leaves his mousing to perch upon one leg and hoot love ditties at the evening star, or screech out amorous sonnets to the maiden moon?"
"Very like," said Unorna with a laugh.
"And yet--my evening star--dear star of my fast-sinking evening-- golden Unorna--shall I be cut off from love because my years are many? Or rather, shall I not love you the more, because the years that are left are few and scantily blessed? May not your dawn blend with my sunset and make together one short day?"
"That is very pretty," said Unorna, thoughtfully. He had the power of making his speech sound like a deep, soft music.
"For what is love?" he asked. "Is it a garment, a jewel, a fanciful ornament which only boys and girls may wear upon a summer's holiday? May we take it or leave it, as we please? Wear it, if it shows well upon our beauty, or cast it off for others to put on when we limp aside out of the race of fashion to halt and breathe before we die? Is love beauty? Is love youth? Is love yellow hair or black? Is love the rose upon the lip or the peach blossom in the cheek, that only the young may call it theirs? Is it an outward grace, which can live but so long as the other outward graces are its companions, to perish when the first gray hair streaks the dark locks? Is it a glass, shivered by the first shock of care as a mirror by a sword-stroke? Is it a painted mask, washed colourless by the first rain of autumn tears? Is it a flower, so tender that it must perish miserably in the frosty rime of earliest winter? Is love the accident of youth, the complement of a fresh complexion, the corollary of a light step, the physical concomitant of swelling pulses and unstrained sinews?"
Keyork Arabian laughed softly. Unorna was grave and looked up into his face, resting her chin upon her hand.
"If that is love, if that is the idol of your shrine, the vision of your dreams, the familiar genius of your earthly paradise, why then, indeed, he who worships by your side, and who would share the habitation of your happiness, must wear Absalom's anointed curls and walk with Agag's delicate step. What matter if he be but a half-witted puppet? He is fair. What matter if he be foolish, faithless, forgetful, inconstant, changeable as the tide of the sea? He is young. His youth shall cover all his deficiencies and wipe out all his sins! Imperial love, monarch and despot of the human soul, is become the servant of boys for the wage of a girl's first thoughtless kiss. If that is love let it perish out of the world, with the bloom of the wood violet in spring, with the flutter of the bright moth in June, with the song of the nightingale and the call of the mocking-bird, with all things that are fair and lovely and sweet but for a few short days. If that is love, why then love never made a wound, nor left a scar, nor broke a heart in this easy-going rose-garden of a world. The rose blooms, blows, fades and withers and feels nothing. If that is love, we may yet all develop into passionless promoters of a flat and unprofitable commonwealth; the earth may yet be changed to a sweetmeat for us to feed on, and the sea to sugary lemonade for us to drink, as the mad philosopher foretold, and we may yet all be happy after love has left us."
Unorna smiled, while he laughed again.
"Good," she said. "You tell me what love is not, but you have not told me what it is."
"Love is the immortal essence of mortal passion, together they are as soul and body, one being; separate them, and the body without the soul is a monster, the soul without the body is no longer human, nor earthly, nor real to us at all, though still divine. Love is the world's maker, master and destroyer, the magician whose word can change water to blood, and blood to fire, the dove to a serpent, and the serpent to a dove--ay, and can make of that same dove an eagle, with an eagle's beak, and talons, and air-cleaving wing-stroke. Love is the spirit of life and the angel of death. He speaks, and the thorny wilderness of the lonely heart is become a paradise of flowers. He is silent, and the garden is but a blackened desert over which a destroying flame has passed in the arms of the east wind. Love stands at the gateway of each human soul, holding in his hands a rose and a drawn sword--the sword is for the many, the rose for the one."
He sighed and was silent. Unorna looked at him curiously.
"Have you ever loved, that you should talk like that?" she asked. He turned upon her almost fiercely.
"Loved? Yes, as you can never love; as you, in your woman's heart, can never dream of loving--with every thought, with every fibre, with every pulse, with every breath; with a love that is burning the old oak through and through, root and branch, core and knot, to feathery ashes that you may scatter with a sigh--the only sigh you will ever breathe for me, Unorna. Have I loved? Can I love? Do I love to-day as I loved yesterday and shall love to-morrow? Ah, child! That you should ask that, with your angel's face, when I am in hell for you! When I would give my body to death and my soul to darkness for a touch of your hand, for as much kindness and gentleness in a word from your dear lips as you give the beggars in the street! When I would tear out my heart with my hands to feed the very dog that fawns on you--and who is more to you than I, because he is yours, and all that is yours I love, and worship, and adore!"
Unorna had looked up and smiled at first, believing that it was all but a comedy, as he had told her that it should be. But as he spoke, and the strong words chased each other in the torrent of his passionate speech, she was startled and surprised. There was a force in his language, a fiery energy in his look, a ring of half-desperate hope in his deep voice, which moved her to strange thoughts. His face, too, was changed and ennobled, his gestures larger, even his small stature ceased, for once, to seem dwarfish and gnome-like.
"Keyork Arabian, is it possible that you love me?" she cried, in her wonder.
"Possible? True? There is neither truth nor possibility in anything else for me, in anything, in any one, but you, Unorna. The service of my love fills the days and the nights and the years with you--fills the world with you only; makes heaven to be on earth, since heaven is but the air that is made bright with your breath, as the temple of all temples is but the spot whereon your dear feet stand. The light of life is where you are, the darkness of death is everywhere where you are not. But I am condemned to die, cut off, predestined to be lost-- for you have no pity, Unorna, you cannot find it in you to be sorry for the poor old man whose last pulse will beat for you; whose last word will be your name; whose last look upon your beauty will end the dream in which he lived his life. What can it be to you, that I love you so? Why should it be anything to you? When I am gone--with the love of you in my heart, Unorna--when they have buried the ugly old body out of your sight, you will not even remember that I was once your companion, still less that I knelt before you, that I kissed the ground on which you stood; that I loved you as men love whose hearts are breaking, that I touched the hem of your garment and was for one moment young--that I besought you to press my hand but once, with one thought of kindness, with one last and only word of human pity--"
He broke off suddenly, and there was a tremor in his voice which lent intense expression to the words. He was kneeling upon one knee beside Unorna, but between her and the light, so that she saw his face indistinctly. She could not but pity him. She took his outstretched hand in hers.
"Poor Keyork!" she said, very kindly and gently. "How could I have ever guessed all this?"
"It would have been exceedingly strange if you had," answered Keyork, in a tone that made her start.
Then a magnificent peal of bass laughter rolled through the room, as the gnome sprang suddenly to his feet.
"Did I not warn you?" asked Keyork, standing back and contemplating Unorna's surprised face with delight. "Did I not tell you that I was going to make love to you? That I was old and hideous and had everything against me? That it was all a comedy for your amusement? That there was to be nothing but deception from beginning to end? That I was like a decrepit owl screeching at the moon, and many other things to a similar effect?"
Unorna smiled somewhat thoughtfully.
"You are the greatest of great actors, Keyork Arabian. There is something diabolical about you. I sometimes almost think that you are the devil himself!"
"Perhaps I am," suggested the little man cheerfully.
"Do you know that there is a horror about all this?" Unorna rose to her feet. Her smile had vanished and she seemed to feel cold.
As though nothing had happened, Keyork began to make his daily examination of his sleeping patient, applying his thermometer to the body, feeling the pulse, listening to the beatings of the heart with his stethoscope, gently drawing down the lower lid of one of the eyes to observe the colour of the membrane, and, in a word, doing all those things which he was accustomed to do under the circumstances with a promptness and briskness which showed how little he feared that the old man would wake under his touch. He noted some of the results of his observations in a pocket-book. Unorna stood still and watched him.
"Do you remember ever to have been in the least degree like other people?" she asked, speaking after a long silence, as he was returning his notes to his pocket.
"I believe not," he answered. "Nature spared me that indignity--or denied me that happiness--as you may look at it. I am not like other people, as you justly remark. I need not say that it is the other people who are the losers."
"The strange thing is, that you should be able to believe so much of yourself when you find it so hard to believe good of your fellow-men."
"I object to the expression, 'fellow-men,'" returned Keyork promptly. "I dislike phrases, and, generally, maxims as a whole, and all their component parts. A woman must have invented that particular phrase of yours in order to annoy a man she disliked."
"And why, if you please?"
"Because no one ever speaks of 'fellow-women.' The question of woman's duty to man has been amply discussed since the days of Menes the Thinite--but no one ever heard of a woman's duty to her fellow-women; unless, indeed, her duty is to try and outdo them by fair means or foul. Then why talk of man and his fellow-men? I can put the wisest rule of life into two short phrases."
"Give me the advantage of your wisdom."
"The first rule is, Beware of women."
"And the second?"
"Beware of men," laughed the little sage. "Observe the simplicity and symmetry. Each rule has three words, two of which are the same in each, so that you have the result of the whole world's experience at your disposal at the comparatively small expenditure of one verb, one preposition, and two nouns."
"There is little room for love in your system," remarked Unorna, "for such love, for instance, as you described to me a few minutes ago."
"There is too much room for it in yours," retorted Keyork. "Your system is constantly traversed in all directions by bodies, sometimes nebulous and sometimes fiery, which move in unknown orbits at enormous rates of speed. In astronomy they call them comets, and astronomers would be much happier without them."
"I am not an astronomer."
"Fortunately for the peace of the solar system. You have been sending your comets dangerously near to our sick planet," he added, pointing to the sleeper. "If you do it again he will break up into asteroids. To use that particularly disagreeable and suggestive word invented by men, he will die."
"He seems no worse," said Unorna, contemplating the massive, peaceful face.
"I do not like the word 'seems,'" answered Keyork. "It is the refuge of inaccurate persons, unable to distinguish between facts and appearances."
"You object to everything to-day. Are there any words which I may use without offending your sense of fitness in language?"
"None which do not express a willing affirmation of all I say. I will receive any original speech on your part at the point of the sword. You have done enough damage to-day, without being allowed the luxury of dismembering common sense. Seems, you say! By all that is unholy! By Eblis, Ahriman, and the Three Black Angels! He is worse, and there is no seeming. The heat is greater, the pulse is weaker, the heart flutters like a sick bird."
Unorna's face showed her anxiety.
"I am sorry," she said, in a low voice.
"Sorry! No doubt you are. It remains to be seen whether your sorrow can be utilized as a simple, or macerated in tears to make a tonic, or sublimated to produce a corrosive which will destroy the canker, death. But be sorry by all means. It occupies your mind without disturbing me, or injuring the patient. Be sure that if I can find an active application for your sentiment, I will give you the rare satisfaction of being useful."
"You have the art of being the most intolerably disagreeable of living men when it pleases you."
"When you displease me, you should say. I warn you that if he dies-- our friend here--I will make further studies in the art of being unbearable to you. You will certainly be surprised by the result."
"Nothing that you could say or do would surprise me."
"Indeed? We shall see."
"I will leave you to your studies, then. I have been here too long as it is."
She moved and arranged the pillow under the head of the sleeping giant and adjusted the folds of his robe. Her touch was tender and skilful in spite of her ill-suppressed anger. Then she turned away and went towards the door. Keyork Arabian watched her until her hand was upon the latch. His sharp eyes twinkled, as though he expected something amusing to occur.
"Unorna!" he said, suddenly, in an altered voice. She stopped and looked back.
"Do not be angry, Unorna. Do not go away like this."
Unorna turned, almost fiercely, and came back a step.
"Keyork Arabian, do you think you can play upon me as on an instrument? Do you suppose that I will come and go at your word like a child--or like a dog? Do you think you can taunt me at one moment, and flatter me the next, and find my humour always at your command?"
The gnome-like little man looked down, made a sort of inclination of his short body, and laid his hand upon his heart.
"I was never presumptuous, my dear lady. I never had the least intention of taunting you, as you express it, and as for your humour-- can you suppose that I could expect to command, where it is only mine to obey?"
"It is of no use to talk in that way," said Unorna, haughtily. "I am not prepared to be deceived by your comedy this time."
"Nor I to play one. Since I have offended you, I ask your pardon. Forgive the expression, for the sake of the meaning; the thoughtless word for the sake of the unworded thought."
"How cleverly you turn and twist both thoughts and words!"
"Do not be so unkind, dear friend."
"Unkind to you? I wish I had the secret of some unkindness that you should feel!"
"The knowledge of what I can feel is mine alone," answered Keyork, with a touch of sadness. "I am not a happy man. The world, for me, holds but one interest and one friendship. Destroy the one, or embitter the other, and Keyork's remnant of life becomes but a foretaste of death."
"And that interest--that friendship--where are they?" asked Unorna in a tone still bitter, but less scornful than before."
"Together, in this room, and both in danger, the one through your young haste and impetuosity, the other through my wretched weakness in being made angry; forgive me, Unorna, as I ask forgiveness----"
"Your repentance is too sudden; it savours of the death-bed."
"Small wonder, when my life is in the balance."
"Your life?" She uttered the question incredulously, but not without curiosity.
"My life--and for your word," he answered, earnestly. He spoke so impressively, and in so solemn a tone, that Unorna's face became grave. She advanced another step towards him, and laid her hand upon the back of the chair in which she previously had sat.
"We must understand each other--to-day or never," she said. "Either we must part and abandon the great experiment--for, if we part, it must be abandoned--"
"We cannot part, Unorna."
"Then, if we are to be associates and companions--"
"Friends," said Keyork in a low voice.
"Friends? Have you laid the foundation for a friendship between us? You say that your life is in the balance. That is a figure of speech, I suppose. Or has your comedy another act? I can believe well enough that your greatest interest in life lies there, upon that couch, asleep. I know that you can do nothing without me, as you know it yourself. But in your friendship I can never trust--never!--still less can I believe that any words of mine can affect your happiness, unless they be those you need for the experiment itself. Those, at least, I have not refused to pronounce."
While she was speaking, Keyork began to walk up and down the room, in evident agitation, twisting his fingers and bending down his head.
"My accursed folly!" he exclaimed, as though speaking to himself. "My damnable ingenuity in being odious! It is not to be believed! That a man of my age should think one thing and say another--like a tetchy girl or a spoilt child! The stupidity of the thing! And then, to have the idiotic utterances of the tongue registered and judged as a confession of faith--or rather, of faithlessness! But it is only just --it is only right--Keyork Arabian's self is ruined again by Keyork Arabian's vile speeches, which have no more to do with his self than the clouds on earth have with the sun above them! Ruined, ruined-- lost, this time. Cut off from the only living being he respects--the only being whose respect he covets; sent back to die in his loneliness, to perish like a friendless beast, as he is, to the funereal music of his own irrepressible snarling! To growl himself out of the world, like a broken-down old tiger in the jungle, after scaring away all possible peace and happiness and help with his senseless growls! Ugh! It is perfectly just, it is absolutely right and supremely horrible to think of! A fool to the last, Keyork, as you always were--and who would make a friend of such a fool?"
Unorna leaned upon the back of the chair watching him, and wondering whether, after all, he were not in earnest this time. He jerked out his sentences excitedly, striking his hands together and then swinging his arms in strange gestures. His tone, as he gave utterance to his incoherent self-condemnation, was full of sincere conviction and of anger against himself. He seemed not to see Unorna, nor to notice her presence in the room. Suddenly, he stopped, looked at her and came towards her. His manner became very humble.
"You are right, my dear lady," he said. "I have no claim to your forbearance for my outrageous humours. I have offended you, insulted you, spoken to you as no man should speak to any woman. I cannot even ask you to forgive me, and, if I tell you that I am sorry, you will not believe me. Why should you? But you are right. This cannot go on. Rather than run the risk of again showing you my abominable temper, I will go away."
His voice trembled and his bright eyes seemed to grow dull and misty.
"Let this be our parting," he continued, as though mastering his emotion. "I have no right to ask anything, and yet I ask this of you. When I have left you, when you are safe for ever from my humours and my tempers and myself--then, do not think unkindly of Keyork Arabian. He would have seemed the friend he is, but for his unruly tongue."
Unorna hesitated a moment. Then she put out her hand, convinced of his sincerity in spite of herself.
"Let bygones be bygones, Keyork," she said. "You must not go, for I believe you."
At the words, the light returned to his eyes, and a look of ineffable beatitude overspread the face which could be so immovably expressionless.
"You are as kind as you are good, Unorna, and as good as you are beautiful," he said, and with a gesture which would have been courtly in a man of nobler stature, but which was almost grotesque in such a dwarf, he raised her fingers to his lips.
This time, no peal of laugher followed to destroy the impression he had produced upon Unorna. She let her hand rest in his a few seconds, and then gently withdrew it.
"I must be going," she said.
"So soon?" exclaimed Keyork regretfully. "There were many things I had wished to say to you to-day, but if you have no time----"
"I can spare a few minutes," answered Unorna, pausing. "What is it?"
"One thing is this." His face had again become impenetrable as a mask of old ivory, and he spoke in his ordinary way. "This is the question. I was in the Teyn Kirche before I came here."
"In church!" exclaimed Unorna in some surprise, and with a slight smile.
"I frequently go to church," answered Keyork gravely. "While there, I met an old acquaintance of mine, a strange fellow whom I have not seen for years. The world is very small. He is a great traveller--a wanderer through the world."
Unorna looked up quickly, and a very slight colour appeared in her cheeks.
"Who is he?" she asked, trying to seem indifferent. "What is his name?"
"His name? It is strange, but I cannot recall it. He is very tall, wears a dark beard, has a pale, thoughtful face. But I need not describe him, for he told me that he had been with you this morning. That is not the point."
He spoke carelessly and scarcely glanced at Unorna while speaking.
"What of him?" she inquired, trying to seem as indifferent as her companion.
"He is a little mad, poor man, that is all. It struck me that, if you would, you might save him. I know something of his story, though not much. He once loved a young girl, now doubtless dead, but whom he still believes to be alive, and he spends--or wastes--his life in a useless search for her. You might cure him of the delusion."
"How do you know that the girl is dead?"
"She died in Egypt, four years ago," answered Keyork. "They had taken her there in the hope of saving her, for she was at death's door already, poor child."
"But if you convince him of that."
"There is no convincing him, and if he were really convinced he would die himself. I used to take an interest in the man, and I know that you could cure him in a simpler and safer way. But of course it lies with you."
"If you wish it, I will try," Unorna answered, turning her face from the light. "But he will probably not come back to me."
"He will. I advised him very strongly to come back, very strongly indeed. I hope I did right. Are you displeased?"
"Not at all!" Unorna laughed a little. "And if he comes, how am I to convince him that he is mistaken, and that the girl is dead?"
"That is very simple. You will hypnotise him, he will yield very easily, and you will suggest to him very forcibly to forget the girl's existence. You can suggest to him to come back to-morrow and the next day, or as often as you please, and you can renew the suggestion each time. In a week he will have forgotten--as you know people can forget --entirely, totally, without hope of recalling what is lost."
"That is true," said Unorna, in a low voice. "Are you sure that the effect will be permanent?" she asked with sudden anxiety.
"A case of the kind occurred in Hungary last year. The cure was effected in Pesth. I was reading it only a few months ago. The oblivion was still complete, as long as six months after the treatment, and there seems no reason to suppose that the patient's condition will change. I thought it might interest you to try it."
"It will interest me extremely. I am very grateful to you for telling me about him."
Unorna had watched her companion narrowly during the conversation, expecting him to betray his knowledge of a connection between the Wanderer's visit and the strange question she had been asking of the sleeper when Keyork had surprised her. She was agreeably disappointed in this however. He spoke with a calmness and ease of manner which disarmed suspicion.
"I am glad I did right," said he.
He stood at the foot of the couch upon which the sleeper was lying, and looked thoughtfully and intently at the calm features.
"We shall never succeed in this way," he said at last. "This condition may continue indefinitely, till you are old, and I--until I am older than I am by many years. He may not grow weaker, but he cannot grow stronger. Theories will not renew tissues."
Unorna looked up.
"That has always been the question," she answered. "At least, you have told me so. Will lengthened rest and perfect nourishment alone give a new impulse to growth or will they not?"
"They will not. I am sure of it now. We have arrested decay, or made it so slow as to be imperceptible. But we have made many attempts to renew the old frame, and we are no farther advanced than we were nearly four years ago. Theories will not make tissues."
"Blood," answered Keyork Arabian very softly.
"I have heard of that being done for young people in illness," said Unorna.
"It has never been done as I would do it," replied the gnome, shaking his head and gathering his great beard in his hand, as he gazed at the sleeper.
"What would you do?"
"I would make it constant for a day, or for a week if I could--a constant circulation; the young heart and the old should beat together; it could be done in the lethargic sleep--an artery and a vein--a vein and an artery--I have often thought of it; it could not fail. The new young blood would create new tissue, because it would itself constantly be renewed in the young body which is able to renew it, only expending itself in the old. The old blood would itself become young again as it passed to the younger man."
"A man!" exclaimed Unorna.
"Of course. An animal would not do, because you could not produce the lethargy nor make use of suggestion for healing purposes--"
"But it would kill him!"
"Not at all, as I would do it, especially if the young man were very strong and full of life. When the result is obtained, an antiseptic ligature, suggestion of complete healing during sleep, proper nourishment, such as we are giving at present, by recalling the patient to the hypnotic state, sleep again, and so on; in eight and forty hours your young man would be waked and would never know what had happened to him--unless he felt a little older, by nervous sympathy," added the sage with a low laugh.
"Are you perfectly sure of what you say?" asked Unorna eagerly.
"Absolutely. I have examined the question for years. There can be no doubt of it. Food can maintain life, blood alone can renew it."
"Have you everything you need here?" inquired Unorna.
"Everything. There is no hospital in Europe that has the appliances we have prepared for every emergency."
He looked at her face curiously. It was ghastly pale with excitement. The pupil of her brown eye was so widely expanded that the iris looked black, while the aperture of the gray one was contracted to the size of a pin's head, so that the effect was almost that of a white and sightless ball.
"You seem interested," said the gnome.
"Would such a man--such a man as Israel Kafka answer the purpose?" she asked.
"Admirably," replied the other, beginning to understand.
"Keyork Arabian," whispered Unorna, coming close to him and bending down to his ear, "Israel Kafka is alone under the palm tree where I always sit. He is asleep, and he will not wake."
The gnome looked up and nodded gravely. But she was gone almost before she had finished speaking the words.
"As upon an instrument," said the little man, quoting Unorna's angry speech. "Truly I can play upon you, but it is a strange music."
Half an hour later Unorna returned to her place among the flowers, but Israel Kafka was gone.