The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
During the short silence which followed, and while the two were still standing opposite to each other, the unhappy man's look did not change. Unorna saw that he was sure of what he said, and a thrill of triumph, as jubilant as his despair was profound ran through her. If she had cared to reason with herself and to examine into her own sincerity, she would have seen that nothing but genuine passion, good or bad, could have lent the assurance of her rival's death such power to flood the dark street with sunshine. But she was already long past doubt upon that question. The enchanter had bound her heart with his spells at the first glance, and the wild nature was already on fire. For one instant the light shot from her eyes, and then sank again as quickly as it had come. She had other impulses than those of love, and subtle gifts of perception that condemned her to know the truth, even when the delusion was most glorious. He was himself deceived, and she knew it. Beatrice might, indeed, have died long ago. She could not tell. But as she sought in the recesses of his mind, she saw that he had no certainty of it, she saw the black presentiment between him and the image, for she could see the image too. She saw the rival she already hated, not receiving a vision of the reality, but perceiving it through his mind, as it had always appeared to him. For one moment she hesitated still, and she knew that her whole life was being weighed in the trembling balance of that hesitation. For one moment her face became an impenetrable mask, her eyes grew dull as uncut jewels, her breathing ceased, her lips were set like cold marble. Then the stony mask took life again, the sight grew keen, and a gentle sigh stirred the chilly air.
"She is not dead."
"Not dead!" The Wanderer started, but fully two seconds after she had spoken, as a man struck by a bullet in battle, in whom the suddenness of the shock has destroyed the power of instantaneous sensation.
"She is not dead. You have dreamed it," said Unorna, looking at him steadily.
He pressed his hand to his forehead and then moved it, as though brushing away something that troubled him.
"Not dead? Not dead!" he repeated, in changing tones.
"Come with me. I will show her to you."
He gazed at her and his senses reeled. Her words sounded like rarest music in his ear; in the darkness of his brain a soft light began to diffuse itself.
"Is it possible? Have I been mistaken?" he asked in a low voice, as though speaking to himself.
"Come!" said Unorna again very gently.
"Whither? With you? How can you bring me to her? What power have you to lead the living to the dead?"
"To the living. Come."
"To the living--yes. I have dreamed an evil dream--a dream of death. She is not--no, I see it now. She is not dead. She is only very far from me, very, very far. And yet it was this morning--but I was mistaken, deceived by some faint likeness. Ah, God! I thought I knew her face! What is it that you want with me?"
He asked the question as though again suddenly aware of Unorna's presence. She had lifted her veil and her eyes drew his soul into their mysterious depths.
"She calls you. Come."
"She? She is not here. What can you know of her? Why do you look at me so?"
He felt an unaccountable uneasiness under her gaze, like a warning of danger not far off. The memory of his meeting with her on that same morning was not clear at that moment, but he had not forgotten the odd disturbance of his faculties which had distressed him at the time. He was inclined to resist any return of the doubtful state and to oppose Unorna's influence. He felt the fascination of her glance, and he straightened himself rather proudly and coldly as though to withdraw himself from it. It was certain that Unorna, at the surprise of meeting her, had momentarily dispelled the gloomy presentiment which had given him such terrible pain. And yet, even his disturbed and anxious consciousness found it more than strange that she should thus press him to go with her, and so boldly promise to bring him to the object of his search. He resisted her, and found that resistance was not easy.
"And yet," said she, dropping her eyes and seeming to abandon the attempt, "you said that if you failed to-day you would come back to me. Have you succeeded, that you need no help?"
"I have not succeeded."
"And if I had not come to you--if I had not met you here, you would have failed for the last time. You would have carried with you the conviction of her death to the moment of your own."
"It was a horrible delusion, but since it was a delusion it would have passed away in time."
"With your life, perhaps. Who would have waked you, if I had not?"
"I was not sleeping. Why do you reason? What would you prove?"
"Much, if I knew how. Will you walk with me? It is very cold."
They had been standing where they had met. As she spoke, Unorna looked up with an expression wholly unlike the one he had seen a few moments earlier. Her strong will was suddenly veiled by the most gentle and womanly manner, and a little shiver, real or feigned, passed over her as she drew the folds of her fur more closely round her. The man before her could resist the aggressive manifestation of her power, but he was far too courteous to refuse her request.
"Which way?" he asked quietly.
"To the river," she answered.
He turned and took his place by her side. For some moments they walked on in silence. It was already almost twilight.
"How short the days are!" exclaimed Unorna, rather suddenly.
"How long, even at their shortest!" replied her companion.
"They might be short--if you would."
He did not answer her, though he glanced quickly at her face. She was looking down at the pavement before her, as though picking her way, for there were patches of ice upon the stones. She seemed very quiet. He could not guess that her heart was beating violently, and that she found it hard to say six words in a natural tone.
So far as he himself was concerned he was in no humour for talking. He had seen almost everything in the world, and had read or heard almost everything that mankind had to say. The streets of Prague had no novelty for him, and there was no charm in the chance acquaintance of a beautiful woman, to bring words to his lips. Words had long since grown useless in the solitude of a life that was spent in searching for one face among the millions that passed before his sight. Courtesy had bidden him to walk with her, because she had asked it, but courtesy did not oblige him to amuse her, he thought, and she had not the power that Keyork Arabian had to force him into conversation, least of all into conversing upon his own inner life. He regretted the few words he had spoken, and would have taken them back, had it been possible. He felt no awkwardness in the long silence.
Unorna for the first time in her life felt that she had not full control of her faculties. She who was always so calm, so thoroughly mistress of her own powers, whose judgment Keyork Arabian could deceive, but whose self-possession he could not move, except to anger, was at the present moment both weak and unbalanced. Ten minutes earlier she had fancied that it would be an easy thing to fix her eyes on his and to cast the veil of a half-sleep over his already half- dreaming senses. She had fancied that it would be enough to say "Come," and that he would follow. She had formed the bold scheme of attaching him to herself, by visions of the woman whom he loved as she wished to be loved by him. She believed that if he were once in that state she could destroy the old love for ever, or even turn it to hate, at her will. And it had seemed easy. That morning, when he had first come to her, she had fastened her glance upon him more than once, and she had seen him turn a shade paler, had noticed the drooping of his lids and the relaxation of his hands. She had sought him in the street, guided by something surer than instinct, she had found him, had read his thoughts, and had felt him yielding to her fixed determination. Then, suddenly, her power had left her, and as she walked beside him, she knew that if she looked into his face she would blush and be confused like a shy girl. She almost wished that he would leave her without a word and without an apology.
It was not possible, however, to prolong the silence much longer. A vague fear seized her. Had she really lost all her dominating strength in the first moments of the first sincere passion she had ever felt? Was she reduced to weakness by his presence, and unable so much as to sustain a fragmentary conversation, let alone suggesting to his mind the turn it should take? She was ashamed of her poverty of spirit in the emergency. She felt herself tongue-tied, and the hot blood rose to her face. He was not looking at her, but she could not help fancying that he knew her secret embarrassment. She hung her head and drew her veil down so that it should hide even her mouth.
But her trouble increased with every moment, for each second made it harder to break the silence. She sought madly for something to say, and she knew that her cheeks were on fire. Anything would do, no matter what. The sound of her own voice, uttering the commonest of commonplaces, would restore her equanimity. But that simple, almost meaningless phrase would not be found. She would stammer, if she tried to speak, like a child that has forgotten its lesson and fears the schoolmaster as well as the laughter of its schoolmates. It would be so easy if he would say something instead of walking quietly by her side, suiting his pace to hers, shifting his position so that she might step upon the smoothest parts of the ill-paved street, and shielding her, as it were, from the passers-by. There was a courteous forethought for her convenience and safety in every movement of his, a something which a woman always feels when traversing a crowded thoroughfare by the side of a man who is a true gentleman in every detail of life, whether husband, or friend, or chance acquaintance. For the spirit of the man who is really thoughtful for woman, as well as sincerely and genuinely respectful in his intercourse with them, is manifest in his smallest outward action.
While every step she took increased the violence of the passion which had suddenly swept away her strength, every instant added to her confusion. She was taken out of the world in which she was accustomed to rule, and was suddenly placed in one where men are men, and women are women, and in which social conventionalities hold sway. She began to be frightened. The walk must end, and at the end of it they must part. Since she had lost her power over him he might go away, for there would be nothing to bring him to her. She wondered why he would not speak, and her terror increased. She dared not look up, lest she should find him looking at her.
Then they emerged from the street and stood by the river, in a lonely place. The heavy ice was gray with old snow in some places and black in others, where the great blocks had been cut out in long strips. It was lighter here. A lingering ray of sunshine, forgotten by the departing day, gilded the vast walls and turrets of venerable Hradschin, far above them on the opposite bank, and tinted the sharp dark spires of the half-built cathedral which crowns the fortress. The distant ring of fast-moving skates broke the stillness.
"Are you angry with me?" asked Unorna, almost humbly, and hardly knowing what she said. The question had risen to her lips without warning, and was asked almost unconsciously.
"I do not understand. Angry? At what? Why should you think I am angry?"
"You are so silent," she answered, regaining courage from the mere sound of her own words. "We have been walking a long time, and you have said nothing. I thought you were displeased."
"You must forgive me. I am often silent."
"I thought you were displeased," she repeated. "I think that you were, though you hardly knew it. I should be very sorry if you were angry."
"Why would you be sorry?" asked the Wanderer with a civil indifference that hurt Unorna more than any acknowledgment of his displeasure could have done.
"Because I would help you, if you would let me."
He looked at her with sudden keenness. In spite of herself she blushed and turned her head away. He hardly noticed the fact, and, if he had, would assuredly not have put upon it any interpretation approaching to the truth. He supposed that she was flushed with walking.
"No one has ever helped me, least of all in the way you mean," he said. "The counsels of wise men--of the wisest--have been useless, as well as the dreams of women who fancy they have the gift of mental sight beyond the limit of bodily vision."
"Who fancy they see!" exclaimed Unorna, almost glad to find that she was still strong enough to feel annoyance at the slight.
"I beg your pardon. I do not mean to doubt your powers, of which I have had no experience."
"I did not offer to see for you. I did not offer you a dream."
"Would you show me that which I already see, waking and sleeping? Would you bring to my hearing the sound of a voice which I can hear even now? I need no help for that."
"I can do more than that--for you."
"And why for me?" he asked with some curiosity.
"Because--because you are Keyork Arabian's friend." She glanced at his face, but he showed no surprise.
"You have seen him this afternoon, of course," he remarked.
And odd smile passed over Unorna's face.
"Yes. I have seen him this afternoon. He is a friend of mine, and of yours--do you understand?"
"He is the wisest of men," said the Wanderer. "And also the maddest," he added thoughtfully.
"And you think it was in his madness, rather than in his wisdom, that he advised you to come to me?"
"Possibly. In his belief in you, at least."
"And that may be madness?" She was gaining courage.
"Or wisdom--if I am mad. He believes in you. That is certain."
"He has no beliefs. Have you known him long, and do not know that? With him there is nothing between knowledge and ignorance."
"And he knows, of course, by experience what you can do and what you cannot do?"
"By very long experience, as I know him."
"Neither your gifts nor his knowledge of them can change dreams to facts."
Unorna smiled again.
"You can produce a dream--nothing more," continued the Wanderer, drawn at last into argument. "I, too, know something of these things. The wisdom of the Egyptians is not wholly lost yet. You may possess some of it, as well as the undeveloped power which could put all their magic within your reach if you knew how to use it. Yet a dream is a dream."
"Philosophers have disputed that," answered Unorna. "I am no philosopher, but I can overthrow the results of all their disputations."
"You can do this. If I resign my will into your keeping you can cause me to dream. You can call up vividly before me the remembered and unremembered sights of my life. You can make me see clearly the sights impressed upon your own memory. You might do that, and yet you could be showing me nothing which I do not see now before me--of those things which I care to see."
"But suppose that you were wrong, and that I had no dream to show you, but a reality?"
She spoke the words very earnestly, gazing into his eyes at last without fear. Something in her tone struck him and fixed his attention.
"There is no sleep needed to see realities," he said.
"I did not say that there was. I only asked you to come with me to the place where she is."
The Wanderer started slightly and forgot all the instinct of opposition to her which he had felt so strongly before.
"Do you mean that you know--that you can take me to her----" he could not find words. A strange, overmastering astonishment took possession of him, and with it came wild hope and the wilder longing to reach its realisation instantly.
"What else could I have meant? What else did I say?" Her eyes were beginning to glitter in the gathering dusk.
The Wanderer no longer avoided their look, but he passed his hand over his brow, as though dazed.
"I only asked you to come with me," she repeated softly. "There is nothing supernatural about that. When I saw that you did not believe me I did not try to lead you then, though she is waiting for you. She bade me bring you to her."
"You have seen her? You have talked with her? She sent you? Oh, for God's sake, come quickly!--come, come!"
He put out his hand as though to take hers and lead her away. She grasped it eagerly. He had not seen that she had drawn off her glove. He was lost. Her eyes held him and her fingers touched his bare wrist. His lids drooped and his will was hers. In the intolerable anxiety of the moment he had forgotten to resist, he had not even thought of resisting.
There were great blocks of stone in the desolate place, landed there before the river had frozen for a great building, whose gloomy, unfinished mass stood waiting for the warmth of spring to be completed. She led him by the hand, passive and obedient as a child, to a sheltered spot and made him sit down upon one of the stones. It was growing dark.
"Look at me," she said, standing before him, and touching his brow. He obeyed.
"You are the image in my eyes," she said, after a moment's pause.
"Yes. I am the image in your eyes," he answered in a dull voice.
"You will never resist me again, I command it. Hereafter it will be enough for me to touch your hand, or to look at you, and if I say, 'Sleep,' you will instantly become the image again. Do you understand that?"
"I understand it."
"I promise," he replied, without perceptible effort.
"You have been dreaming for years. From this moment you must forget all your dreams."
His face expressed no understanding of what she said. She hesitated a moment and then began to walk slowly up and down before him. His half- glazed look followed her as she moved. She came back and laid her hand upon his head.
"My will is yours. You have no will of your own. You cannot think without me," She spoke in a tone of concentrated determination, and a slight shiver passed over him.
"It is of no use to resist, for you have promised never to resist me again," she continued. "All that I command must take place in your mind instantly, without opposition. Do you understand?"
"Yes," he answered, moving uneasily.
For some seconds she again held her open palm upon his head. She seemed to be evoking all her strength for a great effort.
"Listen to me, and let everything I say take possession of your mind for ever. My will is yours, you are the image in my eyes, my word is your law. You know what I please that you should know. You forget what I command you to forget. You have been mad these many years, and I am curing you. You must forget your madness. You have now forgotten it. I have erased the memory of it with my hand. There is nothing to remember any more."
The dull eyes, deep-set beneath the shadows of the overhanging brow, seemed to seek her face in the dark, and for the third time there was a nervous twitching of the shoulders and limbs. Unorna knew the symptom well, but had never seen it return so often, like a protest of the body against the enslaving of the intelligence. She was nervous in spite of her success. The immediate results of hypnotic suggestion are not exactly the same in all cases, even in the first moments; its consequences may be widely different with different individuals. Unorna, indeed, possessed an extraordinary power, but on the other hand she had to deal with an extraordinary organisation. She knew this instinctively, and endeavoured to lead the sleeping mind by degrees to the condition in which she wished it to remain.
The repeated tremor in the body was the outward sign of a mental resistance which it would not be easy to overcome. The wisest course was to go over the ground already gained. This she was determined to do by means of a sort of catechism.
"Who am I?" she asked.
"Unorna," answered the powerless man promptly, but with a strange air of relief.
"Are you asleep?"
"In what state are you?"
"I am an image."
"And where is your body?"
"Seated upon that stone."
"Can you see your face?"
"I see it distinctly. The eyes in the body are glassy."
"The body is gone now. You do not see it any more. Is that true?"
"It is true. I do not see it. I see the stone on which it was sitting."
"You are still in my eyes. Now"--she touched his head again--"now, you are no longer an image. You are my mind."
"Yes. I am your mind."
"You, my Mind, know that I met to-day a man called the Wanderer, whose body you saw when you were in my eyes. Do you know that or not?"
"I know it. I am your mind."
"You know, Mind, that the man was mad. He had suffered for many years from a delusion. In pursuit of the fixed idea he had wandered far through the world. Do you know whither his travels had led him?"
"I do not know. That is not in your mind. You did not know it when I became your mind."
"Good. Tell me, Mind, what was this man's delusion?"
"He fancied that he loved a woman whom he could not find."
"The man must be cured. You must know that he was mad and is now sane. You, my Mind, must see that it was really a delusion. You see it now."
"Yes. I see it."
Unorna watched the waking sleeper narrowly. It was now night, but the sky had cleared and the starlight falling upon the snow in the lonely, open place, made it possible to see very well. Unorna seemed as unconscious of the bitter cold as her subject, whose body was in a state past all outward impressions. So far she had gone through all the familiar process of question and answer with success, but this was not all. She knew that if, when he awoke, the name he loved still remained in his memory, the result would not be accomplished. She must produce entire forgetfulness, and to do this, she must wipe out every association, one by one. She gathered her strength during a short pause. She was greatly encouraged by the fact that the acknowledgment of the delusion had been followed by no convulsive reaction in the body. She was on the very verge of a complete triumph, and the concentration of her will during a few moments longer might win the battle.
She could not have chosen a spot better suited for her purpose. Within five minutes' walk of streets in which throngs of people were moving about, the scene which surrounded her was desolate and almost wild. The unfinished building loomed like a ruin behind her; the rough hewn blocks lay like boulders in a stony desert; the broad gray ice lay like a floor of lustreless iron before her under the uncertain starlight. Only afar off, high up in the mighty Hradschin, lamps gleamed here and there from the windows, the distant evidences of human life. All was still. Even the steely ring of the skates had ceased.
"And so," she continued, presently, "this man's whole life has been a delusion, ever since he began to fancy in the fever of an illness that he loved a certain woman. Is this clear to you, my Mind?"
"It is quite clear," answered the muffled voice.
"He was so utterly mad that he even gave that woman a name--a name, when she had never existed except in his imagination."
"Except in his imagination," repeated the sleeper, without resistance.
"He called her Beatrice. The name was suggested to him because he had fallen ill in a city of the South where a woman called Beatrice once lived and was loved by a great poet. That was the train of self- suggestion in his delirium. Mind, do you understand?"
"He suggested to himself the name in his illness."
"In the same way that he suggested to himself the existence of the woman whom he afterwards believed he loved?"
"In exactly the same way."
"It was all a curious and very interesting case of auto-hypnotic suggestion. It made him very mad. He is now cured of it. Do you see that he is cured?"
The sleeper gave no answer. The stiffened limbs did not move, indeed, nor did the glazed eyes reflect the starlight. But he gave no answer. The lips did not even attempt to form words. Had Unorna been less carried away by the excitement in her own thoughts, or less absorbed in the fierce concentration of her will upon its passive subject, she would have noticed the silence and would have gone back again over the old ground. As it was, she did not pause.
"You understand therefore, my Mind, that this Beatrice was entirely the creature of the man's imagination. Beatrice does not exist, because she never existed. Beatrice never had any real being. Do you understand?"
This time she waited for an answer, but none came.
"There never was any Beatrice," she repeated firmly, laying her hand upon the unconscious head and bending down to gaze into the sightless eyes.
The answer did not come, but a shiver like that of an ague shook the long, graceful limbs.
"You are my Mind," she said fiercely. "Obey me! There never was any Beatrice, there is no Beatrice now, and there never can be."
The noble brow contracted in a look of agonising pain, and the whole frame shook like an aspen leaf in the wind. The mouth moved spasmodically.
"Obey me! Say it!" cried Unorna with passionate energy.
The lips twisted themselves, and the face was as gray as the gray snow.
"There is--no--Beatrice." The words came out slowly, and yet not distinctly, as though wrung from the heart by torture.
Unorna smiled at last, but the smile had not faded from her lips when the air was rent by a terrible cry.
"By the Eternal God of Heaven!" cried the ringing voice. "It is a lie! --a lie!--a lie!"
She who had never feared anything earthly or unearthly shrank back. She felt her heavy hair rising bodily upon her head.
The Wanderer had sprung to his feet. The magnitude and horror of the falsehood spoken had stabbed the slumbering soul to sudden and terrible wakefulness. The outline of his tall figure was distinct against the gray background of ice and snow. He was standing at his full height, his arms stretched up to heaven, his face luminously pale, his deep eyes on fire and fixed upon her face, forcing back her dominating will upon itself. But he was not alone!
"Beatrice!" he cried in long-drawn agony.
Between him and Unorna something passed by, something dark and soft and noiseless, that took shape slowly--a woman in black, a veil thrown back from her forehead, her white face turned towards the Wanderer, her white hands hanging by her side. She stood still, and the face turned, and the eyes met Unorna's, and Unorna knew that it was Beatrice.
There she stood, between them, motionless as a statue, impalpable as air, but real as life itself. The vision, if it was a vision, lasted fully a minute. Never, to the day of her death, was Unorna to forget that face, with its deathlike purity of outline, with its unspeakable nobility of feature.
It vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. A low broken sound of pain escaped from the Wanderer's lips, and with his arms extended he fell forwards. The strong woman caught him and he sank to the ground gently, in her arms, his head supported upon her shoulder, as she kneeled under the heavy weight.
There was a sound of quick footsteps on the frozen snow. A Bohemian watchman, alarmed by the loud cry, was running to the spot.
"What has happened?" he asked, bending down to examine the couple.
"My friend has fainted," said Unorna calmly. "He is subject to it. You must help me to get him home."
"Is it far?" asked the man.
"To the House of the Black Mother of God."