The Witch of Prague by F. Marion Crawford
The principal room of Keyork Arabian's dwelling was in every way characteristic of the man. In the extraordinary confusion which at first disturbed a visitor's judgment, some time was needed to discover the architectural bounds of the place. The vaulted roof was indeed apparent, as well as small portions of the wooden flooring. Several windows, which might have been large had they filled the arched embrasures in which they were set, admitted the daylight when there was enough of it in Prague to serve the purpose of illumination. So far as could be seen from the street, they were commonplace windows without shutters and with double casements against the cold, but from within it was apparent that the tall arches in the thick walls had been filled in with a thinner masonry in which the modern frames were set. So far as it was possible to see, the room had but two doors; the one, masked by a heavy curtain made of a Persian carpet, opened directly upon the staircase of the house; the other, exactly opposite, gave access to the inner apartments. On account of its convenient size, however, the sage had selected for his principal abiding place this first chamber, which was almost large enough to be called a hall, and here he had deposited the extraordinary and heterogeneous collection of objects, or, more property speaking, of remains, upon the study of which he spent a great part of his time.
Two large tables, three chairs and a divan completed the list of all that could be called furniture. The tables were massive, dark, and old-fashioned; the feet at each end consisted of thick flat boards sawn into a design of simple curves, and connected by strong crosspieces keyed to them with large wooden bolts. The chairs were ancient folding stools, with movable backs and well-worn cushions of faded velvet. The divan differed in no respect from ordinary oriental divans in appearance, and was covered with a stout dark Bokhara carpet of no great value; but so far as its use was concerned, the disorderly heaps of books and papers that lay upon it showed that Keyork was more inclined to make a book-case of it than a couch.
The room received its distinctive character however neither from its vaulted roof, nor from the deep embrasures of its windows, nor from its scanty furniture, but from the peculiar nature of the many curious objects, large and small, which hid the walls and filled almost all the available space on the floor. It was clear that every one of the specimens illustrated some point in the great question of life and death which formed the chief study of Keyork Arabian's latter years; for by far the greater number of the preparations were dead bodies, of men, of women, of children, of animals, to all of which the old man had endeavoured to impart the appearance of life, and in treating some of which he had attained results of a startling nature. The osteology of man and beast was indeed represented, for a huge case, covering one whole wall, was filled to the top with a collection of many hundred skulls of all races of mankind, and where real specimens were missing, their place was supplied by admirable casts of craniums; but this reredos, so to call it, of bony heads, formed but a vast, grinning background for the bodies which stood and sat and lay in half-raised coffins and sarcophagi before them, in every condition produced by various known and lost methods of embalming. There were, it is true, a number of skeletons, disposed here and there in fantastic attitudes, gleaming white and ghostly in their mechanical nakedness, the bones of human beings, the bones of giant orang-outangs, of creatures large and small down to the flimsy little framework of a common bull frog, strung on wires as fine as hairs, which squatted comfortably upon an old book near the edge of a table, as though it had just skipped to that point in pursuit of a ghostly fly and was pausing to meditate a farther spring. But the eye did not discover these things at the first glance. Solemn, silent, strangely expressive, lay three slim Egyptians, raised at an angle as though to give them a chance of surveying their fellow-dead, the linen bandages unwrapped from their heads and arms and shoulders, their jet-black hair combed and arranged and dressed by Keyork's hand, their faces softened almost to the expression of life by one of his secret processes, their stiffened joints so limbered by his art that their arms had taken natural positions again, lying over the edges of the sarcophagi in which they had rested motionless and immovable through thirty centuries. For the man had pursued his idea in every shape and with every experiment, testing, as it were, the potential imperishability of the animal frame by the degree of life-like plumpness and softness and flexibility which it could be made to take after a mummification of three thousand years. And he had reached the conclusion that, in the nature of things, the human body might vie, in resisting the mere action of time, with the granite of the pyramids. Those had been his earliest trials. The results of many others filled the room. Here a group of South Americans, found dried in the hollow of an ancient tree, had been restored almost to the likeness of life, and were apparently engaged in a lively dispute over the remains of a meal--as cold as themselves and as human. There, towered the standing body of an African, leaning upon a knotted club, fierce, grinning, lacking only sight in the sunken eyes to be terrible. There again, surmounting a lay figure wrapped in rich stuffs, smiled the calm and gentle face of a Malayan lady--decapitated for her sins, so marvellously preserved that the soft dark eyes still looked out from beneath the heavy, half- drooping lids, and the full lips, still richly coloured, parted a little to show the ivory teeth. Other sights there were, more ghastly still, triumphs of preservation, if not of semi-resuscitation, over decay, won on its own most special ground. Triumphs all, yet almost failures in the eyes of the old student, they represented the mad efforts of an almost supernatural skill and superhuman science to revive, if but for one second, the very smallest function of the living body. Strange and wild were the trials he had made; many and great the sacrifices and blood offerings lavished on his dead in the hope of seeing that one spasm which would show that death might yet be conquered; many the engines, the machines, the artificial hearts, the applications of electricity that he had invented; many the powerful reactives he had distilled wherewith to excite the long dead nerves, or those which but two days had ceased to feel. The hidden essence was still undiscovered, the meaning of vitality eluded his profoundest study, his keenest pursuit. The body died, and yet the nerves could still be made to act as though alive for the space of a few hours--in rare cases for a day. With his eyes he had seen a dead man spring half across a room from the effects of a few drops of musk--on the first day; with his eyes he had seen the dead twist themselves, and move and grin under the electric current--provided it had not been too late. But that "too late" had baffled him, and from his first belief that life might be restored when once gone, he had descended to what seemed the simpler proposition of the two, to the problem of maintaining life indefinitely so long as its magic essence lingered in the flesh and blood. And now he believed that he was very near the truth; how terribly near he had yet to learn.
On that evening when the Wanderer fell to the earth before the shadow of Beatrice, Keyork Arabian sat alone in his charnel-house. The brilliant light of two powerful lamps illuminated everything in the place, for Keyork loved light, like all those who are intensely attached to life for its own sake. The yellow rays flooded the life- like faces of his dead companions, and streamed upwards to the heterogeneous objects that filled the shelves almost to the spring of the vault--objects which all reminded him of the conditions of lives long ago extinct, endless heaps of barbarous weapons, of garments of leather and of fish skin, Amurian, Siberian, Gothic, Mexican, and Peruvian; African and Red Indian masks, models of boats and canoes, sacred drums, Liberian idols, Runic calendars, fiddles made of human skulls, strange and barbaric ornaments, all producing together an amazing richness of colour--all things in which the man himself had taken but a passing interest, the result of his central study--life in all its shapes.
He sat alone. The African giant looked down at his dwarf-like form as though in contempt of such half-grown humanity; the Malayan lady's bodiless head turned its smiling face towards him; scores of dead beings seemed to contemplate half in pity, half in scorn, their would- be reviver. Keyork Arabian was used to their company and to their silence. Far beyond the common human horror of dead humanity, if one of them had all at once nodded to him and spoken to him he would have started with delight and listened with rapture. But they were all still dead, and they neither spoke or moved a finger. A thought that had more hope in it than any which had passed through his brain for many years now occupied and absorbed him. A heavy book lay open on the table by his side, and from time to time he glanced at a phrase which seemed to attract him. It was always the same phrase, and two words alone sufficed to bring him back to contemplation of it. Those two words were "Immortality" and "Soul." He began to speak aloud to himself, being by nature fond of speech.
"Yes. The soul is immortal. I am quite willing to grant that. But it does not in any way follow that it is the source of life, or the seat of intelligence. The Buddhists distinguished it even from the individuality. And yet life holds it, and when life ends it takes its departure. How soon? I do not know. It is not a condition of life, but life is one of its conditions. Does it leave the body when life is artificially prolonged in a state of unconsciousness--by hypnotism, for instance? Is it more closely bound up with animal life, or with intelligence? If with either, has it a definite abiding place in the heart, or in the brain? Since its presence depends directly on life, so far as I know, it belongs to the body rather than to the brain. I once made a rabbit live an hour without its head. With a man that experiment would need careful manipulation--I would like to try it. Or is it all a question of that phantom, Vitality? Then the presence of the soul depends upon the potential excitability of the nerves, and, as far as we know, it must leave the body not more than twenty-four hours after death, and it certainly does not leave the body at the moment of dying. But if of the nerves, then what is the condition of the soul in the hypnotic state? Unorna hypnotises our old friend there --and our young one, too. For her, they have nerves. At her touch they wake, they sleep, they move, they feel, they speak. But they have no nerves for me. I can cut them with knives, burn them, turn the life- blood of the one into the arteries of the other--they feel nothing. If the soul is of the nerves--or of the vitality, then they have souls for Unorna, and none for me. That is absurd. Where is that old man's soul? He has slept for years. Has not his soul been somewhere else in the meanwhile? If we could keep him asleep for centuries, or for scores of centuries, like that frog found alive in a rock, would his soul--able by the hypothesis to pass through rocks or universes--stay by him? Could an ingenious sinner escape damnation for a few thousand years by being hypnotised? Verily the soul is a very unaccountable thing, and what is still more unaccountable is that I believe in it. Suppose the case of the ingenious sinner. Suppose that he could not escape by his clever trick. Then his soul must inevitably taste the condition of the damned while he is asleep. But when he is waked at last, and found to be alive, his soul must come back to him, glowing from the eternal flames. Unpleasant thought! Keyork Arabian, you had far better not go to sleep at present. Since all that is fantastic nonsense, on the face of it, I am inclined to believe that the presence of the soul is in some way a condition requisite for life, rather than depending upon it. I wish I could buy a soul. It is quite certain that life is not a mere mechanical or chemical process. I have gone too far to believe that. Take man at the very moment of death-- have everything ready, do what you will--my artificial heart is a very perfect instrument, mechanically speaking--and how long does it take to start the artificial circulation through the carotid artery? Not a hundredth part so long a time as drowned people often lie before being brought back, without a pulsation, without a breath. Yet I never succeeded, though I have made the artificial heart work on a narcotised rabbit, and the rabbit died instantly when I stopped the machine, which proves that it was the machine that kept it alive. Perhaps if one applied it to a man just before death he might live on indefinitely, grow fat and flourish so long as the glass heart worked. Where would his soul be then? In the glass heart, which would have become the seat of life? Everything, sensible or absurd, which I can put into words makes the soul seem an impossibility--and yet there is something which I cannot put into words, but which proves the soul's existence beyond all doubt. I wish I could buy somebody's soul and experiment with it."
He ceased and sat staring at his specimens, going over in his memory the fruitless experiments of a lifetime. A loud knocking roused him from his reverie. He hastened to open the door and was confronted by Unorna. She was paler than usual, and he saw from her expression that there was something wrong.
"What is the matter?" he asked, almost roughly.
"He is in a carriage downstairs," she answered quickly. "Something has happened to him. I cannot wake him, you must take him in--"
"To die on my hands? Not I!" laughed Keyork in his deepest voice. "My collection is complete enough."
She seized him suddenly by both arms, and brought her face near to his.
"If you dare to speak of death----"
She grew intensely white, with a fear she had not before known in her life. Keyork laughed again, and tried to shake himself free of her grip.
"You seem a little nervous," he observed calmly. "What do you want of me?"
"Your help, man, and quickly! Call your people! Have him carried upstairs! Revive him! do something to bring him back!"
Keyork's voice changed.
"Is he in real danger?" he asked. "What have you done to him?"
"Oh, I do not know what I have done!" cried Unorna desperately. "I do not know what I fear----"
She let him go and leaned against the doorway, covering her face with her hands. Keyork stared at her. He had never seen her show so much emotion before. Then he made up his mind. He drew her into his room and left her standing and staring at him while he thrust a few objects into his pockets and threw his fur coat over him.
"Stay here till I come back," he said, authoritatively, as he went out.
"But you will bring him here?" she cried, suddenly conscious of his going.
The door had already closed. She tried to open it, in order to follow him, but she could not. The lock was of an unusual kind, and either intentionally or accidentally Keyork had shut her in. For a few moments she tried to force the springs, shaking the heavy wood work a very little in the great effort she made. Then, seeing that it was useless, she walked slowly to the table and sat down in Keyork's chair.
She had been in the place before, and she was as free from any unpleasant fear of the dead company as Keyork himself. To her, as to him, they were but specimens, each having a peculiar interest, as a thing, but all destitute of that individuality, of that grim, latent malice, of that weird, soulless, physical power to harm, with which timid imaginations endow dead bodies.
She scarcely gave them a glance, and she certainly gave them no thought. She sat before the table, supporting her head in her hands and trying to think connectedly of what had just happened. She knew well enough how the Wanderer had lain upon the frozen ground, his head supported on her knee, while the watchman had gone to call a carriage. She remembered how she had summoned all her strength and had helped to lift him in, as few women could have done. She remembered every detail of the place, and everything she had done, even to the fact that she had picked up his hat and a stick he had carried and had taken them into the vehicle with her. The short drive through the ill-lighted streets was clear to her. She could still feel the pressure of his shoulder as he had leaned heavily against her; she could see the pale face by the fitful light of the lanterns as they passed, and of the lamps that flashed in front of the carriage with each jolting of the wheels over the rough paving-stones. She remembered exactly what she had done, her efforts to wake him, at first regular and made with the certainty of success, then more and more mad as she realised that something had put him beyond the sphere of her powers for the moment, if not for ever; his deathly pallor, his chilled hands, his unnatural stillness--she remembered it all, as one remembers circumstances in real life a moment after they have taken place. But there remained also the recollection of a single moment during which her whole being had been at the mercy of an impression so vivid that it seemed to stand alone divested of any outward sensations by which to measure its duration. She, who could call up visions in the minds of others, who possessed the faculty of closing her bodily eyes in order to see distant places and persons in the state of trance, she, who expected no surprises in her own act, had seen something very vividly, which she could not believe had been a reality, and which she yet could not account for as a revelation of second sight. That dark, mysterious presence that had come bodily, yet without a body, between her and the man she loved was neither a real woman, nor the creation of her own brain, nor a dream seen in hypnotic state. She had not the least idea how long it had stood there; it seemed an hour, and it seemed but a second. But that incorporeal thing had a life and a power of its own. Never before had she felt that unearthly chill run through her, nor that strange sensation in her hair. It was a thing of evil omen, and the presage was already about to be fulfilled. The spirit of the dark woman had arisen at the sound of the words in which he denied her; she had risen and had come to claim her own, to rob Unorna of what seemed most worth coveting on earth--and she could take him, surely, to the place whence she came. How could Unorna tell that he was not already gone, that his spirit had not passed already, even when she was lifting his weight from the ground?
At the despairing thought she started and looked up. She had almost expected to see that shadow beside her again. But there was nothing. The lifeless bodies stood motionless in their mimicry of life under the bright light. The swarthy negro frowned, the face of the Malayan woman wore still its calm and gentle expression. Far in the background the rows of gleaming skulls grinned, as though at the memory of their four hundred lives; the skeleton of the orang-outang stretched out its long bony arms before it; the dead savages still squatted round the remains of their meal. The stillness was oppressive.
Unorna rose to her feet in sudden anxiety. She did not know how long she had been alone. She listened anxiously at the door for the sound of footsteps on the stairs, but all was silent. Surely, Keyork had not taken him elsewhere, to his lodgings, where he would not be cared for. That was impossible. She must have heard the sound of the wheels as the carriage drove away. She glanced at the windows and saw that the casements were covered with small, thick curtains which would muzzle the sound. She went to the nearest, thrust the curtain aside, opened the inner and the second glass and looked out. Though the street below was dim, she could see well enough that the carriage was no longer there. It was the bitterest night of the year and the air cut her like a knife, but she would not draw back. She strained her sight in both directions, searching in the gloom for the moving lights of a carriage, but she saw nothing. At last she shut the window and went back to the door. They must be on the stairs, or still below, perhaps, waiting for help to carry him up. The cold might kill him in his present state, a cold that would kill most things exposed to it. Furiously she shook the door. It was useless. She looked about for an instrument to help her strength. She could see nothing--no--yes--there was the iron-wood club of the black giant. She went and took it from his hand. The dead thing trembled all over, and rocked as though it would fall, and wagged its great head at her, but she was not afraid. She raised the heavy club and struck upon the door, upon the lock, upon the panels with all her might. The terrible blows sent echoes down the staircase, but the door did not yield, nor the lock either. Was the door of iron and the lock of granite? she asked herself. Then she heard a strange, sudden noise behind her. She turned and looked. The dead negro had fallen bodily from his pedestal to the floor, with a dull, heavy thud. She did not desist, but struck the oaken planks again and again with all her strength. Then her arms grew numb and she dropped the club. It was all in vain. Keyork had locked her in and had taken the Wanderer away.
She went back to her seat and fell into an attitude of despair. The reaction from the great physical efforts she had made overcame her. It seemed to her that Keyork's only reason for taking him away must be that he was dead. Her head throbbed and her eyes began to burn. The great passion had its will of her and stabbed her through and through with such pain as she had never dreamed of. The horror of it all was too deep for tears, and tears were by nature very far from her eyes at all times. She pressed her hands to her breast and rocked herself gently backwards and forwards. There was no reason left in her. To her there was no reason left in anything if he were gone. And if Keyork Arabian could not cure him, who could? She knew now what that old prophecy had meant, when they had told her that love would come but once, and that the chief danger of her life lay in a mistake on that decisive day. Love had indeed come upon her like a whirlwind, he had flashed upon her like the lightning, she had tried to grasp him and keep him, and he was gone again--for ever. Gone through her own fault, through her senseless folly in trying to do by art what love would have done for himself. Blind, insensate, mad! She cursed herself with unholy curses, and her beautiful face was strained and distorted. With unconscious fingers she tore at her heavy hair until it fell about her like a curtain. In the raging thirst of a great grief for tears that would not flow she beat her bosom, she beat her face, she struck with her white forehead the heavy table before her, she grasped her own throat, as though she would tear the life out of herself. Then again her head fell forward and her body swayed regularly to and fro, and low words broke fiercely from her trembling lips now and then, bitter words of a wild, strong language in which it is easier to curse than to bless. As the sudden love that had in a few hours taken such complete possession of her was boundless, so its consequences were illimitable. In a nature strange to fear, the fear for another wrought a fearful revolution. Her anger against herself was as terrible as her fear for him she loved was paralysing. The instinct to act, the terror lest it should be too late, the impossibility of acting at all so long as she was imprisoned in the room, all three came over her at once.
The mechanical effort of rocking her body from side to side brought no rest; the blow she struck upon her breast in her frenzy she felt no more than the oaken door had felt those she had dealt it with the club. She could not find even the soothing antidote of bodily pain for her intense moral suffering. Again the time passed without her knowing or guessing of its passage.
Driven to desperation she sprang at last from her seat and cried aloud.
"I would give my soul to know that he is safe!"
The words had not died away when a low groan passed, as it were, round the room. The sound was distinctly that of a human voice, but it seemed to come from all sides at once. Unorna stood still and listened.
"Who is in this room?" she asked in loud clear tones.
Not a breath stirred. She glanced from one specimen to another, as though suspecting that among the dead some living being had taken a disguise. But she knew them all. There was nothing new to her there. She was not afraid. Her passion returned.
"My soul!--yes!" she cried again, leaning heavily on the table, "I would give it if I could know, and it would be little enough!"
Again that awful sound filled the room, and rose now almost to a wail and died away.
Unorna's brow flushed angrily. In the direct line of her vision stood the head of the Malayan woman, its soft, embalmed eyes fixed on hers.
"If there are people hidden here," cried Unorna fiercely, "let them show themselves! let them face me! I say it again--I would give my immortal soul!"
This time Unorna saw as well as heard. The groan came, and the wail followed it and rose to a shriek that deafened her. And she saw how the face of the Malayan woman changed; she saw it move in the bright lamp-light, she saw the mouth open. Horrified, she looked away. Her eyes fell upon the squatting savages--their heads were all turned towards her, she was sure that she could see their shrunken chests heave as they took breath to utter that terrible cry again and again; even the fallen body of the African stirred on the floor, not five paces from her. Would their shrieking never stop? All of them--every one--even to the white skulls high up in the case; not one skeleton, not one dead body that did not mouth at her and scream and moan and scream again.
Unorna covered her ears with her hands to shut out the hideous, unearthly noise. She closed her eyes lest she should see those dead things move. Then came another noise. Were they descending from their pedestals and cases and marching upon her, a heavy-footed company of corpses?
Fearless to the last, she dropped her hands and opened her eyes.
"In spite of you all," she cried defiantly, "I will give my soul to have him safe!"
Something was close to her. She turned and saw Keyork Arabian at her elbow. There was an odd smile on his usually unexpressive face.
"Then give me that soul of yours, if you please," he said. "He is quite safe and peacefully asleep. You must have grown a little nervous while I was away."