The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
The Wanderer, when Keyork Arabian had left him, had intended to revisit Unorna without delay, but he had not proceeded far in the direction of her house when he turned out of his way and entered a deserted street which led towards the river. He walked slowly, drawing his furs closely about him, for it was very cold.
He found himself in one of those moments of life in which the presentiment of evil almost paralyses the mind's power of making any decision. In general, a presentiment is but the result upon the consciousness of conscious or unconscious fear. This fear is very often the natural consequence of the reaction which, in melancholy natures, comes almost inevitably after a sudden and unexpected satisfaction or after a period in which the hopes of the individual have been momentarily raised by some unforeseen circumstance. It is by no means certain that hope is of itself a good thing. The wise and mournful soul prefers the blessedness of that non-expectancy which shall not be disappointed, to the exhilarating pleasures of an anticipation which may prove empty. In this matter lies one of the great differences between the normal moral state of the heathen and that of the Christian. The Greek hoped for all things in this world and for nothing in the next; the Christian, on the contrary, looks for a happiness to come hereafter, while fundamentally denying the reality of any earthly joy whatsoever in the present. Man, however, is so constituted as to find it almost impossible to put faith in either bliss alone, without helping his belief by borrowing some little refreshment from the hope of the other. The wisest of the Greeks believed the soul to be immortal; the sternest of Christians cannot forget that once or twice in his life he had been contemptibly happy, and condemns himself for secretly wishing that he might be as happy again before all is over. Faith is the evidence of things unseen, but hope is the unreasoning belief that unseen things may soon become evident. The definition of faith puts earthly disappointment out of the question; that of hope introduces it into human affairs as a constant and imminent probability.
The development of psychologic research in our day has proved beyond a doubt that individuals of a certain disposition may be conscious of events actually occurring, or which have recently occurred, at a great distance; but it has not shown satisfactorily that things yet to happen are foreshadowed by that restless condition of the sensibilities which we call presentiment. We may, and perhaps must, admit that all that is or has been produces a real and perceptible impression upon all else that is. But there is as yet no good reason for believing that an impression of what shall be can be conveyed by anticipation--without reasoning--to the mind of man.
But though the realisation of a presentiment may be as doubtful as any event depending upon chance alone, yet the immense influence which a mere presentiment may exercise is too well known to be denied. The human intelligence has a strong tendency to believe in its own reasonings, of which, indeed, the results are often more accurate and reliable than those reached by the physical perceptions alone. The problems which can be correctly solved by inspection are few indeed compared with those which fall within the province of logic. Man trusts to his reason, and then often confounds the impressions produced by his passions with the results gained by semi-conscious deduction. His love, his hate, his anger create fears, and these supply him with presentiments which he is inclined to accept as so many well-reasoned grounds of action. If he is often deceived, he becomes aware of his mistake, and, going to the other extreme, considers a presentiment as a sort of warning that the contrary of what he expects will take place; if he chances to be often right he grows superstitious.
The lonely man who was pacing the icy pavement of the deserted street on that bitter winter's day felt the difficulty very keenly. He would not yield and he could not advance. His heart was filled with forebodings which his wisdom bade him treat with indifference, while his passion gave them new weight and new horror with every minute that passed.
He had seen with his eyes and heard with his ears. Beatrice had been before him, and her voice had reached him among the voices of thousands, but now, since the hours has passed and he had not found her, it was as though he had been near her in a dream, and the strong certainty took hold of him that she was dead and that he had looked upon her wraith in the shadowy church.
He was a strong man, not accustomed to distrust his senses, and his reason opposed itself instantly to the suggestion of the supernatural. He had many times, on entering a new city, felt himself suddenly elated by the irresistible belief that his search was at an end, and that within a few hours he must inevitably find her whom he had sought so long. Often as he passed through the gates of some vast burying- place, he had almost hesitated to walk through the silent ways, feeling all at once convinced that upon the very first headstone he was about to see the name that was ever in his heart. But the expectation of final defeat, like the anticipation of final success, had been always deceived. Neither living nor dead had he found her.
Two common, reasonable possibilities lay before him, and two only. He had either seen Beatrice, or he had not. If she had really been in the Teyn Kirche, she was in the city and not far from him. If she had not been there, he had been deceived by an accidental but extraordinary likeness. Within the logical concatenation of cause and effect there was no room for any other supposition, and it followed that his course was perfectly clear. He must continue his search until he should find the person he had seen, and the result would be conclusive, for he would again see the same face and hear the same voice. Reason told him that he had in all likelihood been mistaken after all. Reason reminded him that the church had been dark, the multitude of worshippers closely crowded together, the voices that sang almost innumerable and wholly undistinguishable from each other. Reason showed him a throng of possibilities, all pointing to an error of his perceptions and all in direct contradiction with the one fact which his loving instinct held for true.
The fear of evil, the presentiment of death, defied logic and put its own construction and interpretation upon the strange event. He neither believed, nor desired to believe, in a supernatural visitation, yet the inexplicable certainty of having seen a ghostly vision overwhelmed reason and all her arguments. Beatrice was dead. Her spirit had passed in that solemn hour when the Wanderer had stood in the dusky church; he had looked upon her shadowy wraith, and had heard the echo of a voice from beyond the stars, whose crystal tones already swelled the diviner harmony of an angelic strain.
The impression was so strong at first as to be but one step removed from conviction. The shadow of a great mourning fell upon him, of a grief too terrible for words, too solemn for tears, too strong to find any expression save in death itself. He walked heavily, bending his head, his eyes half closed as though in bodily pain, the icy pavement rang like iron under his tread, the frozen air pierced through him, as his sorrow pierced his heart, the gloom of the fast-sinking winter's day deepened as the darkness in his own soul. He, who was always alone, knew at last what loneliness could mean. While she had lived she had been with him always, a living, breathing woman, visible to his inner eyes, speaking to his inward hearing, waking in his sleepless love. He had sought her with restless haste and untiring strength through the length and breadth of the whole world, but yet she had never left him, he had never been separated from her for one moment, never, in the years of his wandering, had he entered the temple of his heart without finding her in its most holy place. Men had told him that she was dead, but he had looked within himself and had seen that she was still alive; the dread of reading her sacred name carved upon the stone that covered her resting-place, had chilled him and made his sight tremble, but he had entered the shrine of his soul and had found her again, untouched by death, unchanged by years, living, loved, and loving. But now, when he shut out the dismal street from view, and went to the sanctuary and kneeled upon the threshold, he saw but a dim vision, as of something lying upon an altar in the dark, something shrouded in white, something shapely and yet shapeless, something that had been and was not any more.
He reached the end of the street, but he felt a reluctance to leave it, and turned back again, walking still more slowly and heavily than before. So far as any outward object or circumstance could be said to be in harmony with his mood, the dismal lane, the failing light, the bitter air, were at that moment sympathetic to him. The tomb itself is not more sepulchral than certain streets and places in Prague on a dark winter's afternoon. In the certainty that the last and the greatest of misfortunes had befallen him, the Wanderer turned back into the gloomy by-way as the pale, wreathing ghosts, fearful of the sharp daylight and the distant voices of men, sink back at dawn into the graves out of which they have slowly risen to the outer air in the silence of the night.
Death, the arch-steward of eternity, walks the bounds of man's entailed estate, and the headstones of men's graves are landmarks in the great possession committed to his stewardship, enclosing within their narrow ring the wretched plot of land which makes up all of life's inheritance. From ever to always the generations of men do bondsmen's service in that single field, to plough it and sow it, and harrow it and water it, to lay the sickle to the ripe corn if so be that their serfdom falls in the years of plenty and the ear is full, to eat the bread of tears, if their season of servitude be required of them in a time of scarcity and famine. Bondsmen of death, from birth, they are sent forth out of the sublime silence of the pathless forest which hems in the open glebe land of the present and which is eternity, past and to come; bondsmen of death, from youth to age, they join in the labour of the field, they plough, they sow, they reap, perhaps, tears they shed many, and of laughter there is also a little amongst them; bondsmen of death, to the last, they are taken in the end, when they have served their tale of years, many or few, and they are led from furrow and grass land, willing or unwilling, mercifully or cruelly, to the uttermost boundary, and they are thrust out quickly into the darkness whence they came. For their place is already filled, and the new husbandmen, their children, have in their turn come into the field, to eat of the fruit they sowed, to sow in turn a seed of which they themselves shall not see the harvest, whose sheaves others shall bind, whose ears others shall thresh, and of whose corn others shall make bread after them. With our eyes we may yet see the graves of two hundred generations of men, whose tombs serve but to mark that boundary more clearly, whose fierce warfare, when they fought against the master, could not drive back that limit by a handbreadth, whose uncomplaining labour, when they accepted their lot patiently, earned them not one scant foot of soil wherewith to broaden their inheritance as reward for their submission; and of them all, neither man nor woman was ever forgotten in the day of reckoning, nor was one suffered to linger in the light. Death will bury a thousand generations more, in graves as deep, strengthening year by year the strong chain of his grim landmarks. He will remember us every one when the time comes; to some of us he will vouchsafe a peaceful end, but some shall pass away in mortal agony, and some shall be dragged unconscious to the other side; but all must go. Some shall not see him till he is at hand, and some shall dream of him in year-long dreams of horror, to be taken unawares at the last. He will remember us every one and will come to us, and the place of our rest shall be marked for centuries, for years, or for seconds, for each a stone, or a few green sods laid upon a mound beneath the sky, or the ripple on a changing wave when the loaded sack has slipped from the smooth plank, and the sound of a dull splash has died away in the wind. There be strong men, as well as weak, who shudder and grow cold when they think of that yet undated day which must close with its black letter their calendar of joy and sorrow; there are weaklings, as well as giants, who fear death for those they love, but who fear not anything else at all. The master treats courage and cowardice alike; Achilles and Thersites must alike perish, and none will be so bold as to say that he can tell the dust of the misshapen varlet from the ashes of the swift-footed destroyer, whose hair was once so bright, whose eyes were so fierce, whose mighty heart was so slothless, so wrathful, so inexorable and so brave.
The Wanderer was of those who dread nothing save for the one dearly- beloved object, but who, when that fear is once roused by a real or an imaginary danger, can suffer in one short moment the agony which should be distributed through a whole lifetime. The magnitude of his passion could lend to the least thought or presentiment connected with it the force of a fact and the overwhelming weight of a real calamity.
In order to feel any great or noble passion a man must have an imagination both great and sensitive in at least one direction. The execution of a rare melody demands as a prime condition an instrument of wide compass and delicate construction, and one of even more rich and varied capabilities is needed to render those grand harmonies which are woven in the modulation of sonorous chords. A skilful hand may draw a scale from wooden blocks set upon ropes of straw, but the great musician must hold the violin, or must feel the keys of the organ under his fingers and the responsive pedals at his feet, before he can expect to interpret fittingly the immortal thought of the composer. The strings must vibrate in perfect tune, the priceless wood must be seasoned and penetrated with the melodies of years, and scores of years, the latent music must be already trembling to be free, before the hand that draws the bow can command the ears and hearts of those who hear. So, too, love, the chief musician of this world, must find an instrument worthy of his touch before he can show all his power, and make heart and soul ring with the lofty strains of a sublime passion. Not every one knows what love means; few indeed know all that love can mean. There is no more equality among men than there is likeness between them, and no two are alike. The many have little, the few have much. To the many is given the faint perception of higher things, which is either the vestige, or the promise, of a nobler development, past or yet to come. As through a veil they see the line of beauty which it is not theirs to trace; as in a dream they hear the succession of sweet tones which they can themselves never bring together, though their half-grown instinct feels a vague satisfaction in the sequence; as from another world, they listen to the poet's song, wondering, admiring, but powerless over the great instrument of human speech, from whose 15,000 keys their touch can draw but the dull, tuneless prose of daily question and answer; as in a mirage of things unreal, they see the great deeds that are done in their time for love or hate, for race or country, for ambition and for vengeance, but though they see the result, and know the motive, the inward meaning and spirit of it all escapes them. It is theirs to be, and existence is in itself their all. To think, to create, to act, to feel can be only for the few. To one is given the transcendent genius that turns the very stones along life's road to precious gems of thought; whose gift it is to find speech in dumb things and eloquence in the ideal half of the living world; to whom sorrow is a melody and joy sweet music; to whom the humblest effort of a humble life can furnish an immortal lyric, and in whom one thought of the Divine can inspire a sublime hymn. Another stoops and takes a handful of clay from the earth, and with the pressure of his fingers moulds it to the reality of an unreal image seen in dreams; or, standing before the vast, rough block of marble, he sees within the mass the perfection of a faultless form--he lays the chisel to the stone, the mallet strikes the steel, one by one the shapeless fragments fly from the shapely limbs, the matchless curves are uncovered, the breathing mouth smiles through the petrifaction of a thousand ages, the shroud of stone falls from the godlike brow, and the Hermes of Olympia stands forth in all his deathless beauty. Another is born to the heritage of this world's power, fore-destined to rule and fated to destroy; the naked sword of destiny lies in his cradle; the axe of a king-maker awaits the awakening of his strength; the sceptre of supreme empire hangs within his reach. Unknown, he dreams and broods over the future; unheeded, he begins to move among his fellows; a smile, half of encouragement, half of indifference, greets his first effort; he advances a little farther, and thoughtful men look grave, another step, and suddenly all mankind cries out and faces him and would beat him back; but it is too late; one struggle more, and the hush of a great and unknown fear falls on the wrangling nations; they are silent, and the world is his. He is the man who is already thinking when others have scarcely begun to feel; who is creating before the thoughts of his rivals have reached any conclusion; who acts suddenly, terribly and irresistibly, before their creations have received life. And yet, the greatest and the richest inheritance of all is not his, for it has fallen to another, to the man of heart, and it is the inheritance of the kingdom of love.
In all ages the reason of the world has been at the mercy of brute force. The reign of law has never had more than a passing reality, and never can have more than that so long as man is human. The individual intellect and the aggregate intelligence of nations and races have alike perished in the struggles of mankind, to revive again, indeed, but as surely to be again put to the edge of the sword. Here and there great thoughts and great masterpieces have survived the martyrdom of a thinker, the extinction of a school, the death of a poet, the wreck of a high civilisation. Socrates is murdered with the creed of immortality on his very lips; hardly had he spoken the wonderful words recorded in the Phaedo when the fatal poison sent its deathly chill through his limbs; the Greeks are gone, yet the Hermes of Olympia remains, mutilated and maimed, indeed, but faultless still, and still supreme. The very name of Homer is grown wellnigh as mythic as his blindness. There are those to-day who, standing by the grave of William Shakespeare, say boldly that he was not the creator of the works that bear his name. And still, through the centuries, Achilles wanders lonely by the shore of the sounding sea; Paris loves, and Helen is false; Ajax raves, and Odysseus steers his sinking ship through the raging storm. Still, Hamlet the Avenger swears, hesitates, kills at last, and then himself is slain; Romeo sighs in the ivory moonlight, and love-bound Juliet hears the triumphant lark carolling his ringing hymn high in the cool morning air, and says it is the nightingale--Immortals all, the marble god, the Greek, the Dane, the love-sick boy, the maiden foredoomed to death. But how short is the roll-call of these deathless ones! Through what raging floods of destruction have they lived, through what tempests have they been tossed, upon what inhospitable shores have they been cast up by the changing tides of time! Since they were called to life by the great, half-nameless departed, how often has their very existence been forgotten by all but a score in tens of millions? Has it been given to those embodied thoughts of transcendent genius to ride in the whirlwind of men's passions or to direct the stormy warfare of half frantic nations? Since they were born in all their bright perfection, to live on in unchanging beauty, violence has ruled the world; many a time since then the sword has mown down its harvest of thinkers, many a time has the iron harrow of war torn up and scarred the face of the earth. Athens still stands in broken loveliness, and the Tiber still rolls its tawny waters heavily through Rome; but Rome and Athens are to-day but places of departed spirits; they are no longer the seats of life, their broken hearts are petrified. All men may see the ports through which the blood flowed to the throbbing centre, the traces of the mighty arteries through which it was driven to the ends of the earth. But the blood is dried up, the hearts are broken, and though in their stony ruins those dead world-hearts be grander and more enduring than any which in our time are whole and beating, yet neither their endurance nor their grandeur have saved them from man, the destroyer, nor was the beauty of their thoughts or the thoughtfully-devised machinery of their civilisation a shield against a few score thousand rough-hammered blades, wielded by rough-hewn mortals who recked neither of intellect nor of civilisation, nor yet of beauty, being but very human men, full of terribly strong and human passions. Look where you will, throughout the length and breadth of all that was the world five thousand, or five hundred years ago; everywhere passion has swept thought before it, and belief, reason. And we, too, with our reason and our thoughts, shall be swept from existence and the memory of it. Is this the age of reason, and is this the reign of law? In the midst of this civilisation of ours three millions of men lie down nightly by their arms, men trained to handle rifle and sword, taught to destroy and to do nothing else; and nearly as many more wait but a summons to leave their homes and join the ranks. And often it is said that we are on the eve of a universal war. At the command of a few individuals, at the touch of a few wires, more than five millions of men in the very prime and glory of strength, armed as men never were armed since time began, will arise and will kill civilisation and thought, as both the one and the other have been slain before by fewer hands and less deadly weapons. Is this reason, or is this law? Passion rules the world, and rules alone. And passion is neither of the head, nor of the hand, but of the heart. Passion cares nothing for the mind. Love, hate, ambition, anger, avarice, either make a slave of intelligence to serve their impulses, or break down its impotent opposition with the unanswerable argument of brute force, and tear it to pieces with iron hands.
Love is the first, the greatest, the gentlest, the most cruel, the most irresistible of passions. In his least form he is mighty. A little love has destroyed many a great friendship. The merest outward semblance of love has made such havoc as no intellect could repair. The reality has made heroes and martyrs, traitors and murderers, whose names will not be forgotten, for glory or for shame. Helen is not the only woman whose smile has kindled the beacon of a ten years' war, nor Antony the only man who has lost the world for a caress. It may be that the Helen who shall work our destruction is even now twisting and braiding her golden hair; it may be that the new Antony, who is to lose this same old world again, already stands upon the steps of Cleopatra's throne. Love's day is not over yet, nor has man outgrown the love of woman.
But the power to love greatly is a gift, differing much in kind, though little in degree, from the inspiration of the poet, the genius of the artist, or the unerring instinct and eagle's glance of the conqueror; for conqueror, artist and poet are moved by passion and not by reason, which is but their servant in so far as it can be commanded to move others, and their deadliest enemy when it would move themselves. Let the passion and the instrument but meet, being suited to each other, and all else must go down before them. Few, indeed, are they to whom is given that rich inheritance, and they themselves alone know all their wealth, and all their misery, all the boundless possibilities of happiness that are theirs, and all the dangers and the terrors that beset their path. He who has won woman in the face of daring rivals, of enormous odds, of gigantic obstacles, knows what love means; he who has lost her, having loved her, alone has measured with his own soul the bitterness of earthly sorrow, the depth of total loneliness, the breadth of the wilderness of despair. And he who has sorrowed long, who has long been alone, but who has watched the small, twinkling ray still burning upon the distant border of his desert--the faint glimmer of a single star that was still above the horizon of despair--he only can tell what utter darkness can be upon the face of the earth when that last star has set for ever. With it are gone suddenly the very quarters and cardinal points of life's chart, there is no longer any right hand or any left, any north or south, any rising of the sun or any going down, any forward or backward direction in his path, any heaven above, or any hell below. The world has stood still and there is no life in the thick, black stillness. Death himself is dead, and one living man is forgotten behind, to mourn him as a lost friend, to pray that some new destroyer, more sure of hand than death himself, may come striding through the awful silence to make an end at last of the tormented spirit, to bear it swiftly to the place where that last star ceased to shine, and to let it down into the restful depths of an unremembering eternity. But into that place, which is the soul of man, no destroyer can penetrate; that solitary life neither the sword, nor pestilence, nor age, nor eternity can extinguish; that immortal memory no night can obscure. There was a beginning indeed, but end there can be none.
Such a man was the Wanderer, as he paced the deserted street in the cruel, gloomy cold of the late day. Between his sight and the star of his own hope an impenetrable shadow had arisen, so that he saw it no more. The memory of Beatrice was more than ever distinct to his inner sense, but the sudden presentiment of her death, real in its working as any certainty, had taken the reality of her from the ground on which he stood. For that one link had still been between them. Somewhere, near or far, during all these years, she, too, had trodden the earth with her light footsteps, the same universal mother earth on which they both moved and lived. The very world was hers, since she was touching it, and to touch it in his turn was to feel her presence. For who could tell what hidden currents ran in the secret depths, or what mysterious interchange of sympathy might not be maintained through them? The air itself was hers, since she was somewhere breathing it; the stars, for she looked on them; the sun, for it warmed her; the cold of winter, for it chilled her too; the breezes of spring, for they fanned her pale cheek and cooled her dark brow. All had been hers, and at the thought that she had passed away, a cry of universal mourning broke from the world she had left behind, and darkness descended upon all things, as a funeral pall.
Cold and dim and sad the ancient city had seemed before, but it was a thousandfold more melancholy now, more black, more saturated with the gloom of ages. From time to time the Wanderer raised his heavy lids, scarcely seeing what was before him, conscious of nothing but the horror which had so suddenly embraced his whole existence. Then, all at once, he was face to face with some one. A woman stood still in the way, a woman wrapped in rich furs, her features covered by a dark veil which could not hide the unequal fire of the unlike eyes so keenly fixed on his.
"Have you found her?" asked the soft voice.
"She is dead," answered the Wanderer, growing very white.