THE WITCH OF PRAGUE
A FANTASTIC TALE
By F. Marion Crawford
A great multitude of people filled the church, crowded together in the old black pews, standing closely thronged in the nave and aisles, pressing shoulder to shoulder even in the two chapels on the right and left of the apse, a vast gathering of pale men and women whose eyes were sad and in whose faces was written the history of their nation. The mighty shafts and pilasters of the Gothic edifice rose like the stems of giant trees in a primeval forest from a dusky undergrowth, spreading out and uniting their stony branches far above in the upper gloom. From the clerestory windows of the nave an uncertain light descended halfway to the depths and seemed to float upon the darkness below as oil upon the water of a well. Over the western entrance the huge fantastic organ bristled with blackened pipes and dusty gilded ornaments of colossal size, like some enormous kingly crown long forgotten in the lumber room of the universe, tarnished and overlaid with the dust of ages. Eastwards, before the rail which separated the high altar from the people, wax torches, so thick that a man might not span one of them with both his hands, were set up at irregular intervals, some taller, some shorter, burning with steady, golden flames, each one surrounded with heavy funeral wreaths, and each having a tablet below it, whereon were set forth in the Bohemian idiom, the names, titles, and qualities of him or her in whose memory it was lighted. Innumerable lamps and tapers before the side altars and under the strange canopied shrines at the bases of the pillars, struggled ineffectually with the gloom, shedding but a few sickly yellow rays upon the pallid faces of the persons nearest to their light.
Suddenly the heavy vibration of a single pedal note burst from the organ upon the breathing silence, long drawn out, rich, voluminous, and imposing. Presently, upon the massive bass, great chords grew up, succeeding each other in a simple modulation, rising then with the blare of trumpets and the simultaneous crash of mixtures, fifteenths and coupled pedals to a deafening peal, then subsiding quickly again and terminating in one long sustained common chord. And now, as the celebrant bowed at the lowest step before the high altar, the voices of the innumerable congregation joined the harmony of the organ, ringing up to the groined roof in an ancient Slavonic melody, melancholy and beautiful, and rendered yet more unlike all other music by the undefinable character of the Bohemian language, in which tones softer than those of the softest southern tongue alternate so oddly with rough gutturals and strident sibilants.
The Wanderer stood in the midst of the throng, erect, taller than the men near him, holding his head high, so that a little of the light from the memorial torches reached his thoughtful, manly face, making the noble and passionate features to stand out clearly, while losing its power of illumination in the dark beard and among the shadows of his hair. His was a face such as Rembrandt would have painted, seen under the light that Rembrandt loved best; for the expression seemed to overcome the surrounding gloom by its own luminous quality, while the deep gray eyes were made almost black by the wide expansion of the pupils; the dusky brows clearly defined the boundary in the face between passion and thought, and the pale forehead, by its slight recession into the shade from its middle prominence, proclaimed the man of heart, the man of faith, the man of devotion, as well as the intuitive nature of the delicately sensitive mind and the quick, elastic qualities of the man's finely organized, but nervous bodily constitution. The long white fingers of one hand stirred restlessly, twitching at the fur of his broad lapel which was turned back across his chest, and from time to time he drew a deep breath and sighed, not painfully, but wearily and hopelessly, as a man sighs who knows that his happiness is long past and that his liberation from the burden of life is yet far off in the future.
The celebrant reached the reading of the Gospel and the men and women in the pews rose to their feet. Still the singing of the long-drawn-out stanzas of the hymn continued with unflagging devotion, and still the deep accompaniment of the ancient organ sustained the mighty chorus of voices. The Gospel over, the people sank into their seats again, not standing, as is the custom in some countries, until the Creed had been said. Here and there, indeed, a woman, perhaps a stranger in the country, remained upon her feet, noticeable among the many figures seated in the pews. The Wanderer, familiar with many lands and many varying traditions of worship, unconsciously noted these exceptions, looking with a vague curiosity from one to the other. Then, all at once, his tall frame shivered from head to foot, and his fingers convulsively grasped the yielding sable on which they lay.
She was there, the woman he had sought so long, whose face he had not found in the cities and dwellings of the living, neither her grave in the silent communities of the dead. There, before the uncouth monument of dark red marble beneath which Tycho Brahe rests in peace, there she stood; not as he had seen her last on that day when his senses had left him in the delirium of his sickness, not in the freshness of her bloom and of her dark loveliness, but changed as he had dreamed in evil dreams that death would have power to change her. The warm olive of her cheek was turned to the hue of wax, the soft shadows beneath her velvet eyes were deepened and hardened, her expression, once yielding and changing under the breath of thought and feeling as a field of flowers when the west wind blows, was now set, as though for ever, in a death-like fixity. The delicate features were drawn and pinched, the nostrils contracted, the colourless lips straightened out of the lines of beauty into the mould of a lifeless mask. It was the face of a dead woman, but it was her face still, and the Wanderer knew it well; in the kingdom of his soul the whole resistless commonwealth of the emotions revolted together to dethrone death's regent—sorrow, while the thrice-tempered springs of passion, bent but not broken, stirred suddenly in the palace of his body and shook the strong foundations of his being.
During the seconds that followed, his eyes were riveted upon the beloved head. Then, as the Creed ended, the vision sank down and was lost to his sight. She was seated now, and the broad sea of humanity hid her from him, though he raised himself the full height of his stature in the effort to distinguish even the least part of her head-dress. To move from his place was all but impossible, though the fierce longing to be near her bade him trample even upon the shoulders of the throng to reach her, as men have done more than once to save themselves from death by fire in crowded places. Still the singing of the hymn continued, and would continue, as he knew, until the moment of the Elevation. He strained his hearing to catch the sounds that came from the quarter where she sat. In a chorus of a thousand singers he fancied that he could have distinguished the tender, heart-stirring vibration of her tones. Never woman sang, never could woman sing again, as she had once sung, though her voice had been as soft as it had been sweet, and tuned to vibrate in the heart rather than in the ear. As the strains rose and fell, the Wanderer bowed his head and closed his eyes, listening, through the maze of sounds, for the silvery ring of her magic note. Something he heard at last, something that sent a thrill from his ear to his heart, unless indeed his heart itself were making music for his ears to hear. The impression reached him fitfully, often interrupted and lost, but as often renewing itself and reawakening in the listener the certainty of recognition which he had felt at the sight of the singer's face.
He who loves with his whole soul has a knowledge and a learning which surpass the wisdom of those who spend their lives in the study of things living or long dead, or never animate. They, indeed, can construct the figure of a flower from the dried web of a single leaf, or by the examination of a dusty seed, and they can set up the scheme of life of a shadowy mammoth out of a fragment of its skeleton, or tell the story of hill and valley from the contemplation of a handful of earth or of a broken pebble. Often they are right, sometimes they are driven deeper and deeper into error by the complicated imperfections of their own science. But he who loves greatly possesses in his intuition the capacities of all instruments of observation which man has invented and applied to his use. The lenses of his eyes can magnify the infinitesimal detail to the dimensions of common things, and bring objects to his vision from immeasurable distances; the labyrinth of his ear can choose and distinguish amidst the harmonies and the discords of the world, muffling in its tortuous passages the reverberation of ordinary sounds while multiplying a hundredfold the faint tones of the one beloved voice. His whole body and his whole intelligence form together an instrument of exquisite sensibility whereby the perceptions of his inmost soul are hourly tortured, delighted, caught up into ecstasy, torn and crushed by jealousy and fear, or plunged into the frigid waters of despair.
The melancholy hymn resounded through the vast church, but though the Wanderer stretched the faculty of hearing to the utmost, he could no longer find the note he sought amongst the vibrations of the dank and heavy air. Then an irresistible longing came upon him to turn and force his way through the dense throng of men and women, to reach the aisle and press past the huge pillar till he could slip between the tombstone of the astronomer and the row of back wooden seats. Once there, he should see her face to face.
He turned, indeed, as he stood, and he tried to move a few steps. On all sides curious looks were directed upon him, but no one offered to make way, and still the monotonous singing continued until he felt himself deafened, as he faced the great congregation.
"I am ill," he said in a low voice to those nearest to him. "Pray let me pass!"
His face was white, indeed, and those who heard his words believed him. A mild old man raised his sad blue eyes, gazed at him, and while trying to draw back, gently shook his head. A pale woman, whose sickly features were half veiled in the folds of a torn black shawl, moved as far as she could, shrinking as the very poor and miserable shrink when they are expected to make way before the rich and the strong. A lad of fifteen stood upon tiptoe to make himself even slighter than he was and thus to widen the way, and the Wanderer found himself, after repeated efforts, as much as two steps distant from his former position. He was still trying to divide the crowd when the music suddenly ceased, and the tones of the organ died away far up under the western window. It was the moment of the Elevation, and the first silvery tinkling of the bell, the people swayed a little, all those who were able kneeling, and those whose movements were impeded by the press of worshippers bending towards the altar as a field of grain before the gale. The Wanderer turned again and bowed himself with the rest, devoutly and humbly, with half-closed eyes, as he strove to collect and control his thoughts in the presence of the chief mystery of his Faith. Three times the tiny bell was rung, a pause followed, and thrice again the clear jingle of the metal broke the solemn stillness. Then once more the people stirred, and the soft sound of their simultaneous motion was like a mighty sigh breathed up from the secret vaults and the deep foundations of the ancient church; again the pedal note of the organ boomed through the nave and aisles, and again the thousands of human voices took up the strain of song.
The Wanderer glanced about him, measuring the distance he must traverse to reach the monument of the Danish astronomer and confronting it with the short time which now remained before the end of the Mass. He saw that in such a throng he would have no chance of gaining the position he wished to occupy in less than half an hour, and he had not but a scant ten minutes at his disposal. He gave up the attempt therefore, determining that when the celebration should be over he would move forward with the crowd, trusting to his superior stature and energy to keep him within sight of the woman he sought, until both he and she could meet, either just within or just without the narrow entrance of the church.
Very soon the moment of action came. The singing died away, the benediction was given, the second Gospel was read, the priest and the people repeated the Bohemian prayers, and all was over. The countless heads began to move onward, the shuffling of innumerable feet sent heavy, tuneless echoes through vaulted space, broken every moment by the sharp, painful cough of a suffering child whom no one could see in the multitude, or by the dull thud of some heavy foot striking against the wooden seats in the press. The Wanderer moved forward with the rest. Reaching the entrance of the pew where she had sat he was kept back during a few seconds by the half dozen men and women who were forcing their way out of it before him. But at the farthest end, a figure clothed in black was still kneeling. A moment more and he might enter the pew and be at her side. One of the other women dropped something before she was out of the narrow space, and stooped, fumbling and searching in the darkness. At the minute, the slight, girlish figure rose swiftly and passed like a shadow before the heavy marble monument. The Wanderer saw that the pew was open at the other end, and without heeding the woman who stood in his way, he sprang upon the low seat, passed her, stepped to the floor upon the other side and was out in the aisle in a moment. Many persons had already left the church and the space was comparatively free.
She was before him, gliding quickly toward the door. Ere he could reach her, he saw her touch the thick ice which filled the marble basin, cross herself hurriedly and pass out. But he had seen her face again, and he knew that he was not mistaken. The thin, waxen features were as those of the dead, but they were hers, nevertheless. In an instant he could be by her side. But again his progress was momentarily impeded by a number of persons who were entering the building hastily to attend the next Mass. Scarcely ten seconds later he was out in the narrow and dismal passage which winds between the north side of the Teyn Kirche and the buildings behind the Kinsky Palace. The vast buttresses and towers cast deep shadows below them, and the blackened houses opposite absorb what remains of the uncertain winter's daylight. To the left of the church a low arch spans the lane, affording a covered communication between the north aisle and the sacristy. To the right the open space is somewhat broader, and three dark archways give access to as many passages, leading in radiating directions and under the old houses to the streets beyond.
The Wanderer stood upon the steps, beneath the rich stone carvings which set forth the Crucifixion over the door of the church, and his quick eyes scanned everything within sight. To the left, no figure resembling the one he sought was to be seen, but on the right, he fancied that among a score of persons now rapidly dispersing he could distinguish just within one of the archways a moving shadow, black against the blackness. In an instant he had crossed the way and was hurrying through the gloom. Already far before him, but visible and, as he believed, unmistakable, the shade was speeding onward, light as mist, noiseless as thought, but yet clearly to be seen and followed. He cried aloud, as he ran,
His strong voice echoed along the dank walls and out into the court beyond. It was intensely cold, and the still air carried the sound clearly to the distance. She must have heard him, she must have known his voice, but as she crossed the open place, and the gray light fell upon her, he could see that she did not raise her bent head nor slacken her speed.
He ran on, sure of overtaking her in the passage she had now entered, for she seemed to be only walking, while he was pursuing her at a headlong pace. But in the narrow tunnel, when he reached it, she was not, though at the farther end he imagined that the fold of a black garment was just disappearing. He emerged into the street, in which he could now see in both directions to a distance of fifty yards or more. He was alone. The rusty iron shutters of the little shops were all barred and fastened, and every door within the range of his vision was closed. He stood still in surprise and listened. There was no sound to be heard, not the grating of a lock, nor the tinkling of a bell, nor the fall of a footstep.
He did not pause long, for he made up his mind as to what he should do in the flash of a moment's intuition. It was physically impossible that she should have disappeared into any one of the houses which had their entrances within the dark tunnel he had just traversed. Apart from the presumptive impossibility of her being lodged in such a quarter, there was the self-evident fact that he must have heard the door opened and closed. Secondly, she could not have turned to the right, for in that direction the street was straight and without any lateral exit, so that he must have seen her. Therefore she must have gone to the left, since on that side there was a narrow alley leading out of the lane, at some distance from the point where he was now standing—too far, indeed, for her to have reached it unnoticed, unless, as was possible, he had been greatly deceived in the distance which had lately separated her from him.
Without further hesitation, he turned to the left. He found no one in the way, for it was not yet noon, and at that hour the people were either at their prayers or at their Sunday morning's potations, and the place was as deserted as a disused cemetery. Still he hastened onward, never pausing for breath, till he found himself all at once in the great Ring. He knew the city well, but in his race he had bestowed no attention upon the familiar windings and turnings, thinking only of overtaking the fleeting vision, no matter how, no matter where. Now, on a sudden, the great, irregular square opened before him, flanked on the one side by the fantastic spires of the Teyn Church, and the blackened front of the huge Kinsky Palace, on the other by the half-modern Town Hall with its ancient tower, its beautiful porch, and the graceful oriel which forms the apse of the chapel in the second story.
One of the city watchmen, muffled in his military overcoat, and conspicuous by the great bunch of dark feathers that drooped from his black hat, was standing idly at the corner from which the Wanderer emerged. The latter thought of inquiring whether the man had seen a lady pass, but the fellow's vacant stare convinced him that no questioning would elicit a satisfactory answer. Moreover, as he looked across the square he caught sight of a retreating figure dressed in black, already at such a distance as to make positive recognition impossible. In his haste he found no time to convince himself that no living woman could have thus outrun him, and he instantly resumed his pursuit, gaining rapidly upon her he was following. But it is not an easy matter to overtake even a woman, when she has an advantage of a couple of hundred yards, and when the race is a short one. He passed the ancient astronomical clock, just as the little bell was striking the third quarter after eleven, but he did not raise his head to watch the sad-faced apostles as they presented their stiff figures in succession at the two square windows. When the blackened cock under the small Gothic arch above flapped his wooden wings and uttered his melancholy crow, the Wanderer was already at the corner of the little Ring, and he could see the object of his pursuit disappearing before him into the Karlsgasse. He noticed uneasily that the resemblance between the woman he was following and the object of his loving search seemed now to diminish, as in a bad dream, as the distance between himself and her decreased. But he held resolutely on, nearing her at every step, round a sharp corner to the right, then to the left, to the right again, and once more in the opposite direction, always, as he knew, approaching the old stone bridge. He was not a dozen paces behind her as she turned quickly a third time to the right, round the wall of the ancient house which faces the little square over against the enormous buildings comprising the Clementine Jesuit monastery and the astronomical observatory. As he sprang past the corner he saw the heavy door just closing and heard the sharp resounding clang of its iron fastening. The lady had disappeared, and he felt sure that she had gone through that entrance.
He knew the house well, for it is distinguished from all others in Prague, both by its shape and its oddly ornamented, unnaturally narrow front. It is built in the figure of an irregular triangle, the blunt apex of one angle facing the little square, the sides being erected on the one hand along the Karlsgasse and on the other upon a narrow alley which leads away towards the Jews' quarter. Overhanging passages are built out over this dim lane, as though to facilitate the interior communications of the dwelling, and in the shadow beneath them there is a small door studded with iron nails which is invariably shut. The main entrance takes in all the scant breadth of the truncated angle which looks towards the monastery. Immediately over it is a great window, above that another, and, highest of all, under the pointed gable, a round and unglazed aperture, within which there is inky darkness. The windows of the first and second stories are flanked by huge figures of saints, standing forth in strangely contorted attitudes, black with the dust of ages, black as all old Prague is black, with the smoke of the brown Bohemian coal, with the dark and unctuous mists of many autumns, with the cruel, petrifying frosts of ten score winters.
He who knew the cities of men as few have known them, knew also this house. Many a time had he paused before it by day and by night, wondering who lived within its massive, irregular walls, behind those uncouth, barbarously sculptured saints who kept their interminable watch high up by the lozenged windows. He would know now. Since she whom he sought had entered, he would enter too; and in some corner of that dwelling which had long possessed a mysterious attraction for his eyes, he would find at last that being who held power over his heart, that Beatrice whom he had learned to think of as dead, while still believing that somewhere she must be yet alive, that dear lady whom, dead or living, he loved beyond all others, with a great love, passing words.
The Wanderer stood still before the door. In the freezing air, his quick-drawn breath made fantastic wreaths of mist, white and full of odd shapes as he watched the tiny clouds curling quickly into each other before the blackened oak. Then he laid his hand boldly upon the chain of the bell. He expected to hear the harsh jingling of cracked metal, but he was surprised by the silvery clearness and musical quality of the ringing tones which reached his ear. He was pleased, and unconsciously took the pleasant infusion for a favourable omen. The heavy door swung back almost immediately, and he was confronted by a tall porter in dark green cloth and gold lacings, whose imposing appearance was made still more striking by the magnificent fair beard which flowed down almost to his waist. The man lifted his heavy cocked hat and held it low at his side as he drew back to let the visitor enter. The latter had not expected to be admitted thus without question, and paused under the bright light which illuminated the arched entrance, intending to make some inquiry of the porter. But the latter seemed to expect nothing of the sort. He carefully closed the door, and then, bearing his hat in one hand and his gold-headed staff in the other, he proceeded gravely to the other end of the vaulted porch, opened a great glazed door and held it back for the visitor to pass.
The Wanderer recognized that the farther he was allowed to penetrate unhindered into the interior of the house, the nearer he should be to the object of his search. He did not know where he was, nor what he might find. For all that he knew, he might be in a club, in a great banking-house, or in some semi-public institution of the nature of a library, an academy or a conservatory of music. There are many such establishments in Prague, though he was not acquainted with any in which the internal arrangements so closely resembled those of a luxurious private residence. But there was no time for hesitation, and he ascended the broad staircase with a firm step, glancing at the rich tapestries which covered the walls, at the polished surface of the marble steps on either side of the heavy carpet, and at the elaborate and beautiful iron-work of the hand-rail. As he mounted higher, he heard the quick rapping of an electric signal above him, and he understood that the porter had announced his coming. Reaching the landing, he was met by a servant in black, as correct at all points as the porter himself, and who bowed low as he held back the thick curtain which hung before the entrance. Without a word the man followed the visitor into a high room of irregular shape, which served as a vestibule, and stood waiting to receive the guest's furs, should it please him to lay them aside. To pause now, and to enter into an explanation with a servant, would have been to reject an opportunity which might never return. In such an establishment, he was sure of finding himself before long in the presence of some more or less intelligent person of his own class, of whom he could make such inquiries as might enlighten him, and to whom he could present such excuses for his intrusion as might seem most fitting in so difficult a case. He let his sables fall into the hands of the servant and followed the latter along a short passage.
The man introduced him into a spacious hall and closed the door, leaving him to his own reflections. The place was very wide and high and without windows, but the broad daylight descended abundantly from above through the glazed roof and illuminated every corner. He would have taken the room for a conservatory, for it contained a forest of tropical trees and plants, and whole gardens of rare southern flowers. Tall letonias, date palms, mimosas and rubber trees of many varieties stretched their fantastic spikes and heavy leaves half-way up to the crystal ceiling; giant ferns swept the polished marble floor with their soft embroideries and dark green laces; Indian creepers, full of bright blossoms, made screens and curtains of their intertwining foliage; orchids of every hue and of every exotic species bloomed in thick banks along the walls. Flowers less rare, violets and lilies of the valley, closely set and luxuriant, grew in beds edged with moss around the roots of the larger plants and in many open spaces. The air was very soft and warm, moist and full of heavy odours as the still atmosphere of an island in southern seas, and the silence was broken only by the light plash of softly-falling water.
Having advanced a few steps from the door, the Wanderer stood still and waited, supposing that the owner of the dwelling would be made aware of a visitor's presence and would soon appear. But no one came. Then a gentle voice spoke from amidst the verdure, apparently from no great distance.
"I am here," it said.
He moved forward amidst the ferns and the tall plants, until he found himself on the farther side of a thick network of creepers. Then he paused, for he was in the presence of a woman, of her who dwelt among the flowers. She was sitting before him, motionless and upright in a high, carved chair, and so placed that the pointed leaves of the palm which rose above her cast sharp, star-shaped shadows over the broad folds of her white dress. One hand, as white, as cold, as heavily perfect as the sculpture of a Praxiteles or a Phidias, rested with drooping fingers on the arm of the chair. The other pressed the pages of a great book which lay open on the lady's knee. Her face was turned toward the visitor, and her eyes examined his face; calmly and with no surprise in them, but not without a look of interest. Their expression was at once so unusual, so disquieting, and yet so inexplicably attractive as to fascinate the Wanderer's gaze. He did not remember that he had ever seen a pair of eyes of distinctly different colours, the one of a clear, cold gray, the other of a deep, warm brown, so dark as to seem almost black, and he would not have believed that nature could so far transgress the canons of her own art and yet preserve the appearance of beauty. For the lady was beautiful, from the diadem of her red gold hair to the proud curve of her fresh young lips; from her broad, pale forehead, prominent and boldly modelled at the angles of the brows, to the strong mouldings of the well-balanced chin, which gave evidence of strength and resolution wherewith to carry out the promise of the high aquiline features and of the wide and sensitive nostrils.
"Madame," said the Wanderer, bending his head courteously and advancing another step, "I can neither frame excuses for having entered your house unbidden, nor hope to obtain indulgence for my intrusion, unless you are willing in the first place to hear my short story. May I expect so much kindness?"
He paused, and the lady looked at him fixedly and curiously. Without taking her eyes from his face, and without speaking, she closed the book she had held on her knee, and laid it beside her upon a low table. The Wanderer did not avoid her gaze, for he had nothing to conceal, nor any sense of timidity. He was an intruder upon the privacy of one whom he did not know, but he was ready to explain his presence and to make such amends as courtesy required, if he had given offence.
The heavy odours of the flowers filled his nostrils with an unknown, luxurious delight, as he stood there, gazing into the lady's eyes; he fancied that a gentle breath of perfumed air was blowing softly over his hair and face out of the motionless palms, and the faint plashing of the hidden fountain was like an exquisite melody in his ears. It was good to be in such a place, to look on such a woman, to breathe such odours, and to hear such tuneful music. A dreamlike, half-mysterious satisfaction of the senses dulled the keen self-knowledge of body and soul for one short moment. In the stormy play of his troubled life there was a brief interlude of peace. He tasted the fruit of the lotus, his lips were moistened in the sweet waters of forgetfulness.
The lady spoke at last, and the spell left him, not broken, as by a sudden shock, but losing its strong power by quick degrees until it was wholly gone.
"I will answer your question by another," said the lady. "Let your reply be the plain truth. It will be better so."
"Ask what you will. I have nothing to conceal."
"Do you know who and what I am? Do you come here out of curiosity, in the vain hope of knowing me, having heard of me from others?"
"Assuredly not." A faint flush rose in the man's pale and noble face. "You have my word," he said, in the tone of one who is sure of being believed, "that I have never, to my knowledge, heard of your existence, that I am ignorant even of your name—forgive my ignorance—and that I entered this house, not knowing whose it might be, seeking and following after one for whom I have searched the world, one dearly loved, long lost, long sought."
"It is enough. Be seated. I am Unorna."
"Unorna?" repeated the Wanderer, with an unconscious question in his voice, as though the name recalled some half-forgotten association.
"Unorna—yes. I have another name," she added, with a shade of bitterness, "but it is hardly mine. Tell me your story. You loved—you lost—you seek—so much I know. What else?"
The Wanderer sighed.
"You have told in those few words the story of my life—the unfinished story. A wanderer I was born, a wanderer I am, a wanderer I must ever be, until at last I find her whom I seek. I knew her in a strange land, far from my birthplace, in a city where I was known but to a few, and I loved her. She loved me, too, and that against her father's will. He would not have his daughter wed with one not of her race; for he himself had taken a wife among strangers, and while she was yet alive he had repented of what he had done. But I would have overcome his reasons and his arguments—she and I could have overcome them together, for he did not hate me, he bore me no ill-will. We were almost friends when I last took his hand. Then the hour of destiny came upon me. The air of that city was treacherous and deadly. I had left her with her father, and my heart was full of many things, and of words both spoken and unuttered. I lingered upon an ancient bridge that spanned the river, and the sun went down. Then the evil fever of the south laid hold upon me and poisoned the blood in my veins, and stole the consciousness from my understanding. Weeks passed away, and memory returned, with the strength to speak. I learned that she I loved and her father were gone, and none knew whither. I rose and left the accursed city, being at that time scarce able to stand upright upon my feet. Finding no trace of those I sought, I journeyed to their own country, for I knew where her father held his lands. I had been ill many weeks and much time had passed, from the day on which I had left her, until I was able to move from my bed. When I reached the gates of her home, I was told that all had been lately sold, and that others now dwelt within the walls. I inquired of those new owners of the land, but neither they or any of all those whom I questioned could tell me whither I should direct my search. The father was a strange man, loving travel and change and movement, restless and unsatisfied with the world, rich and free to make his own caprice his guide through life; reticent he was, moreover, and thoughtful, not given to speaking out his intentions. Those who administered his affairs in his absence were honourable men, bound by his especial injunction not to reveal his ever-varying plans. Many times, in my ceaseless search, I met persons who had lately seen him and his daughter and spoken with them. I was ever on their track, from hemisphere to hemisphere, from continent to continent, from country to country, from city to city, often believing myself close upon them, often learning suddenly that an ocean lay between them and me. Was he eluding me, purposely, resolutely, or was he unconscious of my desperate pursuit, being served by chance alone and by his own restless temper? I do not know. At last, some one told me that she was dead, speaking thoughtlessly, not knowing that I loved her. He who told me had heard the news from another, who had received it on hearsay from a third. None knew in what place her spirit had parted; none knew by what manner of sickness she had died. Since then, I have heard others say that she is not dead, that they have heard in their turn from others that she yet lives. An hour ago, I knew not what to think. To-day, I saw her in a crowded church. I heard her voice, though I could not reach her in the throng, struggle how I would. I followed her in haste, I lost her at one turning, I saw her before me at the next. At last a figure, clothed as she had been clothed, entered your house. Whether it was she I know not certainly, but I do know that in the church I saw her. She cannot be within your dwelling without your knowledge; if she be here—then I have found her, my journey is ended, my wanderings have led me home at last. If she be not here, if I have been mistaken, I entreat you to let me set eyes on that other whom I mistook for her, to forgive then my mannerless intrusion and to let me go."
Unorna had listened with half-closed eyes, but with unfaltering attention, watching the speaker's face from beneath her drooping lids, making no effort to read his thoughts, but weighing his words and impressing every detail of his story upon her mind. When he had done there was silence for a time, broken only by the plash and ripple of the falling water.
"She is not here," said Unorna at last. "You shall see for yourself. There is indeed in this house a young girl to whom I am deeply attached, who has grown up at my side and has always lived under my roof. She is very pale and dark, and is dressed always in black."
"Like her I saw."
"You shall see her again. I will send for her." Unorna pressed an ivory key in the silver ball which lay beside her, attached to a thick cord of white silk. "Ask Sletchna Axenia to come to me," she said to the servant who opened the door in the distance, out of sight behind the forest of plants.
Amid less unusual surroundings the Wanderer would have rejected with contempt the last remnants of his belief in the identity of Unorna's companion, with Beatrice. But, being where he was, he felt unable to decide between the possible and the impossible, between what he might reasonably expect and what lay beyond the bounds of reason itself. The air he breathed was so loaded with rich exotic perfumes, the woman before him was so little like other women, her strangely mismatched eyes had for his own such a disquieting attraction, all that he saw and felt and heard was so far removed from the commonplaces of daily life as to make him feel that he himself was becoming a part of some other person's existence, that he was being gradually drawn away from his identity, and was losing the power of thinking his own thoughts. He reasoned as the shadows reason in dreamland, the boundaries of common probability receded to an immeasurable distance, and he almost ceased to know where reality ended and where imagination took up the sequence of events.
Who was this woman, who called herself Unorna? He tried to consider the question, and to bring his intelligence to bear upon it. Was she a great lady of Prague, rich, capricious, creating a mysterious existence for herself, merely for her own good pleasure? Her language, her voice, her evident refinement gave colour to the idea, which was in itself attractive to a man who had long ceased to expect novelty in this working-day world. He glanced at her face, musing and wondering, inhaling the sweet, intoxicating odours of the flowers and listening to the tinkling of the hidden fountain. Her eyes were gazing into his, and again, as if by magic, the curtain of life's stage was drawn together in misty folds, shutting out the past, the present, and the future, the fact, the doubt, and the hope, in an interval of perfect peace.
He was roused by the sound of a light footfall upon the marble pavement. Unorna's eyes were turned from his, and with something like a movement of surprise he himself looked towards the new comer. A young girl was standing under the shadow of a great letonia at a short distance from him. She was very pale indeed, but not with that death-like, waxen pallor which had chilled him when he had looked upon that other face. There was a faint resemblance in the small, aquiline features, the dress was black, and the figure of the girl before him was assuredly neither much taller nor much shorter than that of the woman he loved and sought. But the likeness went no further, and he knew that he had been utterly mistaken.
Unorna exchanged a few indifferent words with Axenia and dismissed her.
"You have seen," she said, when the young girl was gone. "Was it she who entered the house just now?"
"Yes. I was misled by a mere resemblance. Forgive me for my importunity—let me thank you most sincerely for your great kindness." He rose as he spoke.
"Do not go," said Unorna, looking at him earnestly.
He stood still, silent, as though his attitude should explain itself, and yet expecting that she would say something further. He felt that her eyes were upon him, and he raised his own to meet the look frankly, as was his wont. For the first time since he had entered her presence he felt that there was more than a mere disquieting attraction in her steady gaze; there was a strong, resistless fascination, from which he had no power to withdraw himself. Almost unconsciously he resumed his seat, still looking at her, while telling himself with a severe effort that he would look but one instant longer and then turn away. Ten seconds passed, twenty, half a minute, in total silence. He was confused, disturbed, and yet wholly unable to shut out her penetrating glance. His fast ebbing consciousness barely allowed him to wonder whether he was weakened by the strong emotions he had felt in the church, or by the first beginning of some unknown and unexpected malady. He was utterly weak and unstrung. He could neither rise from his seat, nor lift his hand, nor close the lids of his eyes. It was as though an irresistible force were drawing him into the depths of a fathomless whirlpool, down, down, by its endless giddy spirals, robbing him of a portion of his consciousness at every gyration, so that he left behind him at every instant something of his individuality, something of the central faculty of self-recognition. He felt no pain, but he did not feel that inexpressible delight of peace which already twice had descended upon him. He experienced a rapid diminution of all perception, of all feeling, of all intelligence. Thought, and the memory of thought, ebbed from his brain and left it vacant, as the waters of a lock subside when the gates are opened, leaving emptiness in their place.
Unorna's eyes turned from him, and she raised her hand a moment, letting it fall again upon her knee. Instantly the strong man was restored to himself; his weakness vanished, his sight was clear, his intelligence was awake. Instantly the certainty flashed upon him that Unorna possessed the power of imposing the hypnotic sleep and had exercised that gift upon him, unexpectedly and against his will. He would have more willingly supposed that he had been the victim of a momentary physical faintness, for the idea of having been thus subjected to the influence of a woman, and of a woman whom he hardly knew, was repugnant to him, and had in it something humiliating to his pride, or at least to his vanity. But he could not escape the conviction forced upon him by the circumstances.
"Do not go far, for I may yet help you," said Unorna, quietly. "Let us talk of this matter and consult what is best to be done. Will you accept a woman's help?"
"Readily. But I cannot accept her will as mine, nor resign my consciousness into her keeping."
"Not for the sake of seeing her whom you say you love?"
The Wanderer was silent, being yet undetermined how to act, and still unsteadied by what he had experienced. But he was able to reason, and he asked of his judgment what he should do, wondering what manner of woman Unorna might prove to be, and whether she was anything more than one of those who live and even enrich themselves by the exercise of the unusual faculties of powers nature has given them. He had seen many of that class, and he considered most of them to be but half fanatics, half charlatans, worshipping in themselves as something almost divine that which was but a physical power, or weakness, beyond their own limited comprehension. Though a whole school of wise and thoughtful men had already produced remarkable results and elicited astounding facts by sifting the truth through a fine web of closely logical experiment, it did not follow that either Unorna, or any other self-convinced, self-taught operator could do more than grope blindly towards the light, guided by intuition alone amongst the varied and misleading phenomena of hypnotism. The thought of accepting the help of one who was probably, like most of her kind, a deceiver of herself and therefore, and thereby, of others, was an affront to the dignity of his distress, a desecration of his love's sanctity, a frivolous invasion of love's holiest ground. But, on the other hand, he was stimulated to catch at the veriest shadows of possibility by the certainty that he was at last within the same city with her he loved, and he knew that hypnotic subjects are sometimes able to determine the abode of persons whom no one else can find. To-morrow it might be too late. Even before to-day's sun had set Beatrice might be once more taken from him, snatched away to the ends of the earth by her father's ever-changing caprice. To lose a moment now might be to lose all.
He was tempted to yield, to resign his will into Unorna's hands, and his sight to her leading, to let her bid him sleep and see the truth. But then, with a sudden reaction of his individuality, he realized that he had another course, surer, simpler, more dignified. Beatrice was in Prague. It was little probable that she was permanently established in the city, and in all likelihood she and her father were lodged in one of the two or three great hotels. To be driven from the one to the other of these would be but an affair of minutes. Failing information from this source, there remained the registers of the Austrian police, whose vigilance takes note of every stranger's name and dwelling-place.
"I thank you," he said. "If all my inquiries fail, and if you will let me visit you once more to-day, I will then ask your help."
"You are right," Unorna answered.
He had been deceived in supposing that he must inevitably find the names of those he sought upon the ordinary registers which chronicle the arrival and departure of travellers. He lost no time, he spared no effort, driving from place to place as fast as two sturdy Hungarian horses could take him, hurrying from one office to another, and again and again searching endless pages and columns which seemed full of all the names of earth, but in which he never found the one of all others which he longed to read. The gloom in the narrow streets was already deepening, though it was scarcely two hours after mid-day, and the heavy air had begun to thicken with a cold gray haze, even in the broad, straight Przikopy, the wide thoroughfare which has taken the place and name of the moat before the ancient fortifications, so that distant objects and figures lost the distinctness of their outlines. Winter in Prague is but one long, melancholy dream, broken sometimes at noon by an hour of sunshine, by an intermittent visitation of reality, by the shock and glare of a little broad daylight. The morning is not morning, the evening is not evening; as in the land of the Lotus, it is ever afternoon, gray, soft, misty, sad, save when the sun, being at his meridian height, pierces the dim streets and sweeps the open places with low, slanting waves of pale brightness. And yet these same dusky streets are thronged with a moving multitude, are traversed ever by ceaseless streams of men and women, flowing onward, silently, swiftly, eagerly. The very beggars do not speak above a whisper, the very dogs are dumb. The stillness of all voices leaves nothing for the perception of the hearing save the dull thread of many thousand feet and the rough rattle of an occasional carriage. Rarely, the harsh tones of a peasant, or the clear voices of a knot of strangers, unused to such oppressive silence, startle the ear, causing hundreds of eager, half-suspicious, half-wondering eyes to turn in the direction of the sound.
And yet Prague is a great city, the capital of the Bohemian Crownland, the centre of a not unimportant nation, the focus in which are concentrated the hottest, if not the brightest, rays from the fire of regeneration kindled within the last half century by the Slavonic race. There is an ardent furnace of life hidden beneath the crust of ashes: there is a wonderful language behind that national silence.
The Wanderer stood in deep thought under the shadow of the ancient Powder Tower. Haste had no further object now, since he had made every inquiry within his power, and it was a relief to feel the pavement beneath his feet and to breathe the misty frozen air after having been so long in the closeness of his carriage. He hesitated as to what he should do, unwilling to return to Unorna and acknowledge himself vanquished, yet finding it hard to resist his desire to try every means, no matter how little reasonable, how evidently useless, how puerile and revolting to his sounder sense. The street behind him led directly towards Unorna's house. Had he found himself in a more remote quarter, he might have come to another and a wiser conclusion. Being so near to the house of which he was thinking, he yielded to the temptation. Having reached this stage of resolution, his mind began to recapitulate the events of the day, and he suddenly felt a strong wish to revisit the church, to stand in the place where Beatrice had stood, to touch in the marble basin beside the door the thick ice which her fingers had touched so lately, to traverse again the dark passages through which he had pursued her. To accomplish his purpose he need only turn aside a few steps from the path he was now following. He left the street almost immediately, passing under a low arched way that opened on the right-hand side, and a moment later he was within the walls of the Teyn Kirche.
The vast building was less gloomy than it had been in the morning. It was not yet the hour of vespers, the funeral torches had been extinguished, as well as most of the lights upon the high altar, there were not a dozen persons in the church, and high up beneath the roof broad shafts of softened sunshine, floating above the mists of the city without, streamed through the narrow lancet windows and were diffused in the great gloom below. The Wanderer went to the monument of Brahe and sat down in the corner of the blackened pew. His hands trembled a little as he clasped them upon his knee, and his head sank slowly towards his breast.
He thought of all that might have been if he had risked everything that morning. He could have used his strength to force a way for himself through the press, he could have thrust the multitude to the right and left, and he could have reached her side. Perhaps he had been weak, indolent, timid, and he accused himself of his own failure. But then, again, he seemed to see about him the closely packed crowd, the sea of faces, the thick, black mass of humanity, and he knew the tremendous power that lay in the inert, passive resistance of a vast gathering such as had been present. Had it been anywhere else, in a street, in a theatre, anywhere except in a church, all would have been well. It had not been his fault, for he knew, when he thought of it calmly, that the strength of his body would have been but as a breath of air against the silent, motionless, and immovable barrier presented by a thousand men, standing shoulder to shoulder against him. He could have done nothing. Once again his fate had defeated him at the moment of success.
He was aware that some one was standing very near to him. He looked up and saw a very short, gray-bearded man engaged in a minute examination of the dark red marble face on the astronomer's tomb. The man's head, covered with closely-cropped gray hair, was half buried between his high, broad shoulders, in an immense collar of fur, but the shape of the skull was so singular as to distinguish its possessor, when hatless, from all other men. The cranium was abnormally shaped, reaching a great elevation at the summit, then sinking suddenly, then spreading forward to an enormous development at the temple just visible as he was then standing, and at the same time forming unusual protuberances behind the large and pointed ears. No one who knew the man could mistake his head, when even the least portion of it could be seen. The Wanderer recognised him at once.
As though he were conscious of being watched, the little man turned sharply, exhibiting his wrinkled forehead, broad at the brows, narrow and high in the middle, showing, too, a Socratic nose half buried in the midst of the gray hair which grew as high as the prominent cheek bones, and suggesting the idea of a polished ivory ball lying in a nest of grayish wool. Indeed all that was visible of the face above the beard might have been carved out of old ivory, so far as the hue and quality of the surface were concerned; and if it had been necessary to sculpture a portrait of the man, no material could have been chosen more fitted to reproduce faithfully the deep cutting of the features, to render the close network of the wrinkles which covered them like the shadings of a line engraving, and at the same time to give the whole that appearance of hardness and smoothness which was peculiar to the clear, tough skin. The only positive colour which relieved the half tints of the face lay in the sharp bright eyes which gleamed beneath the busy eyebrows like tiny patches of vivid blue sky seen through little rifts in a curtain of cloud. All expression, all mobility, all life were concentrated in those two points.
The Wanderer rose to his feet.
"Keyork Arabian!" he exclaimed, extending his hand. The little man immediately gripped it in his small fingers, which, soft and delicately made as they were, possessed a strength hardly to have been expected either from their shape, or from the small proportions of him to whom they belonged.
"Still wandering?" asked the little man, with a slightly sarcastic intonation. He spoke in a deep, caressing bass, not loud, but rich in quality and free from that jarring harshness which often belongs to very manly voices. A musician would have discovered that the pitch was that of those Russian choristers whose deep throats yield organ tones, a full octave below the compass of ordinary singers in other lands.
"You must have wandered, too, since we last met," replied the taller man.
"I never wander," said Keyork. "When a man knows what he wants, knows where it is to be found, and goes thither to take it, he is not wandering. Moreover, I have no thought of removing myself or my goods from Prague. I live here. It is a city for old men. It is saturnine. The foundations of its houses rest on the silurian formation, which is more than can be said for any other capital, as far as I know."
"Is that an advantage?" inquired the Wanderer.
"To my mind. I would say to my son, if I had one—my thanks to a blind but intelligent destiny for preserving me from such a calamity!—I would say to him, 'Spend thy youth among flowers in the land where they are brightest and sweetest; pass thy manhood in all lands where man strives with man, thought for thought, blow for blow; choose for thine old age that spot in which, all things being old, thou mayest for the longest time consider thyself young in comparison with thy surroundings.' A man can never feel old if he contemplates and meditates upon those things only which are immeasurably older than himself. Moreover the imperishable can preserve the perishable."
"It was not your habit to talk of death when we were together."
"I have found it interesting of late years. The subject is connected with one of my inventions. Did you ever embalm a body? No? I could tell you something singular about the newest process."
"What is the connection?"
"I am embalming myself, body and mind. It is but an experiment, and unless it succeeds it must be the last. Embalming, as it is now understood, means substituting one thing for another. Very good. I am trying to purge from my mind its old circulating medium; the new thoughts must all be selected from a class which admits of no decay. Nothing could be simpler."
"It seems to me that nothing could be more vague."
"You were not formerly so slow to understand me," said the strange little man with some impatience.
"Do you know a lady of Prague who calls herself Unorna?" the Wanderer asked, paying no attention to his friend's last remark.
"I do. What of her?" Keyork Arabian glanced keenly at his companion.
"What is she? She has an odd name."
"As for her name, it is easily accounted for. She was born on the twenty-ninth day of February, the year of her birth being bisextile. Unor means February, Unorna, derivative adjective, 'belonging to February.' Some one gave her the name to commemorate the circumstance."
"Her parents, I suppose."
"Most probably—whoever they may have been."
"And what is she?" the Wanderer asked.
"She calls herself a witch," answered Keyork with considerable scorn. "I do not know what she is, or what to call her—a sensitive, an hysterical subject, a medium, a witch—a fool, if you like, or a charlatan if you prefer the term. Beautiful she is, at least, whatever else she may not be."
"Yes, she is beautiful."
"So you have seen her, have you?" The little man again looked sharply up at his tall companion. "You have had a consultation——"
"Does she give consultations? Is she a professional seer?" The Wanderer asked the question in a tone of surprise. "Do you mean that she maintains an establishment upon such a scale out of the proceeds of fortune-telling?"
"I do not mean anything of the sort. Fortune-telling is excellent! Very good!" Keyork's bright eyes flashed with amusement. "What are you doing here—I mean in this church?" He put the question suddenly.
"Pursuing—an idea, if you please to call it so."
"Not knowing what you mean I must please to call your meaning by your own name for it. It is your nature to be enigmatic. Shall we go out? If I stay here much longer I shall be petrified instead of embalmed. I shall turn into dirty old red marble like Tycho's effigy there, an awful warning to future philosophers, and an example for the edification of the faithful who worship here."
They walked towards the door, and the contrast between the appearance of the two brought the ghost of a smile to the thin lips of the pale sacristan, who was occupied in renewing the tapers upon one of the side altars. Keyork Arabian might have stood for the portrait of the gnome-king. His high and pointed head, his immense beard, his stunted but powerful and thickset limbs, his short, sturdy strides, the fiery, half-humorous, half-threatening twinkle of his bright eyes gave him all the appearance of a fantastic figure from a fairy tale, and the diminutive height of his compact frame set off the noble stature and graceful motion of his companion.
"So you were pursuing an idea," said the little man as they emerged into the narrow street. "Now ideas may be divided variously into classes, as, for instance, ideas which are good, bad, or indifferent. Or you may contrast the idea of Plato with ideas anything but platonic—take it as you please. Then there is my idea, which is in itself, good, interesting, and worthy of the embalming process; and there is your idea, which I am human enough to consider altogether bad, worthless, and frivolous, for the plain and substantial reason that it is not mine. Perhaps that is the best division of all. Thine eye is necessarily, fatally, irrevocably evil, because mine is essentially, predestinately, and unchangeably good. If I secretly adopt your idea, I openly assert that it was never yours at all, but mine from the beginning, by the prerogatives of greater age, wider experience, and immeasurably superior wisdom. If you have an idea upon any subject, I will utterly annihilate it to my own most profound satisfaction; if you have none concerning any special point, I will force you to accept mine, as mine, or to die the intellectual death. That is the general theory of the idea."
"And what does it prove?" inquired the Wanderer.
"If you knew anything," answered Keyork, with twinkling eyes, "you would know that a theory is not a demonstration, but an explanation. But, by the hypothesis, since you are not I, you can know nothing certainly. Now my theory explains many things, and, among others, the adamantine, imperishable, impenetrable nature of the substance vanity upon which the showman, Nature, projects in fast fading colours the unsubstantial images of men. Why do you drag me through this dismal passage?"
"I passed through it this morning and missed my way."
"In pursuit of the idea, of course. That was to be expected. Prague is constructed on the same principle as the human brain, full of winding ways, dark lanes, and gloomy arches, all of which may lead somewhere, or may not. Its topography continually misleads its inhabitants as the convolutions of the brain mislead the thoughts that dwell there, sometimes bringing them out at last, after a patient search for daylight, upon a fine broad street where the newest fashions in thought are exposed for sale in brightly illuminated shop windows and showcases; conducting them sometimes to the dark, unsavoury court where the miserable self drags out its unhealthy existence in the single room of its hired earthly lodging."
"The self which you propose to preserve from corruption," observed the tall man, who was carefully examining every foot of the walls between which he was passing with his companion, "since you think so poorly of the lodger and the lodging, I wonder that you should be anxious to prolong the sufferings of the one and his lease of the other."
"It is all I have," answered Keyork Arabian. "Did you think of that?"
"That circumstance may serve as an excuse, but it does not constitute a reason."
"Not a reason! Is the most abject poverty a reason for throwing away the daily crust? My self is all I have. Shall I let it perish when an effort may preserve it from destruction? On the one side of the line stands Keyork Arabian, on the other floats the shadow of an annihilation, which threatens to swallow up Keyork's self, while leaving all that he has borrowed of life to be enjoyed, or wasted by others. Could Keyork be expected to hesitate, so long as he may hope to remain in possession of that inestimable treasure, his own individuality, which is his only means for enjoying all that is not his, but borrowed?"
"So soon as you speak of enjoyment, argument ceases," answered the Wanderer.
"You are wrong, as usual," returned the other. "It is the other way. Enjoyment is the universal solvent of all arguments. No reason can resist its mordant action. It will dissolve any philosophy not founded upon it and modelled out of its substance, as Aqua Regia will dissolve all metals, even to gold itself. Enjoyment? Enjoyment is the protest of reality against the tyranny of fiction."
The little man stopped short in his walk, striking his heavy stick sharply upon the pavement and looking up at his companion, very much as a man of ordinary size looks up at the face of a colossal statue.
"Have wisdom and study led you no farther than that conclusion?"
Keyork's eyes brightened suddenly, and a peal of laughter, deep and rich, broke from his sturdy breast and rolled long echoes through the dismal lane, musical as a hunting-song heard among great trees in winter. But his ivory features were not discomposed, though his white beard trembled and waved softly like a snowy veil blown about by the wind.
"If wisdom can teach how to prolong the lease, what study can be compared with that of which the results may beautify the dwelling? What more can any man do for himself than make himself happy? The very question is absurd. What are you trying to do for yourself at the present moment? Is it for the sake of improving the physical condition or of promoting the moral case of mankind at large that you are dragging me through the slums and byways and alleys of the gloomiest city on this side of eternal perdition? It is certainly not for my welfare that you are sacrificing yourself. You admit that you are pursuing an idea. Perhaps you are in search of some new and curious form of mildew, and when you have found it—or something else—you will name your discovery Fungus Pragensis, or Cryptogamus minor Errantis—'the Wanderer's toadstool.' But I know you of old, my good friend. The idea you pursue is not an idea at all, but that specimen of the genus homo known as 'woman,' species 'lady,' variety 'true love,' vulgar designation 'sweetheart.'"
The Wanderer stared coldly at his companion.
"The vulgarity of the designation is indeed only equalled by that of your taste in selecting it," he said slowly. Then he turned away, intending to leave Keyork standing where he was.
But the little man had already repented of his speech. He ran quickly to his friend's side and laid one hand upon his arm. The Wanderer paused and again looked down.
"Is it of any use to be offended with my speeches? Am I an acquaintance of yesterday? Do you imagine that it could ever be my intention to annoy you?" the questions were asked rapidly in tones of genuine anxiety.
"Indeed, I hardly know how I could suppose that. You have always been friendly—but I confess—your names for things are not—always——"
The Wanderer did not complete the sentence, but looked gravely at Keyork as though wishing to convey very clearly again what he had before expressed in words.
"If we were fellow-countrymen and had our native language in common, we should not so easily misunderstand one another," replied the other. "Come, forgive my lack of skill, and do not let us quarrel. Perhaps I can help you. You may know Prague well, but I know it better. Will you allow me to say that I know also whom it is you are seeking here?"
"Yes. You know. I have not changed since we last met, nor have circumstances favoured me."
"Tell me—have you really seen this Unorna, and talked with her?"
"And she could not help you?"
"I refused to accept her help, until I had done all that was in my own power to do."
"You were rash. And have you now done all, and failed?"
"Then, if you will accept a humble suggestion from me, you will go back to her at once."
"I know very little of her. I do not altogether trust her—"
"Trust! Powers of Eblis—or any other powers! Who talks of trust? Does the wise man trust himself? Never. Then how can he dare trust any one else?"
"Your cynical philosophy again!" exclaimed the Wanderer.
"Philosophy? I am a mysosophist! All wisdom is vanity, and I hate it! Autology is my study, autosophy my ambition, autonomy my pride. I am the great Panegoist, the would-be Conservator of Self, the inspired prophet of the Universal I. I—I—I! My creed has but one word, and that word but one letter, that letter represents Unity, and Unity is Strength. I am I, one, indivisible, central! O I! Hail and live for ever!"
Again the little man's rich bass voice rang out in mellow laughter. A very faint smile appeared upon his companion's sad face.
"You are happy, Keyork," he said. "You must be, since you can laugh at yourself so honestly."
"At myself? Vain man! I am laughing at you, and at every one else, at everything except myself. Will you go to Unorna? You need not trust her any more than the natural infirmity of your judgment suggests."
"Can you tell me nothing more of her? Do you know her well?"
"She does not offer her help to every one. You would have done well to accept it in the first instance. You may not find her in the same humour again."
"I had supposed from what you said of her that she made a profession of clairvoyance, or hypnotism, or mesmerism—whatever may be the right term nowadays."
"It matters very little," answered Keyork, gravely. "I used to wonder at Adam's ingenuity in naming all living things, but I think he would have made but a poor figure in a tournament of modern terminologists. No. Unorna does not accept remuneration for her help when she vouchsafes to give it."
"And yet I was introduced to her presence without even giving my name."
"That is her fancy. She will see any one who wishes to see her, beggar, gentleman, or prince. But she only answers such questions as she pleases to answer."
"That is to say, inquiries for which she is already prepared with a reply," suggested the Wanderer.
"See for yourself. At all events, she is a very interesting specimen. I have never known any one like her."
Keyork Arabian was silent, as though he were reflecting upon Unorna's character and peculiar gifts, before describing them to his friend. His ivory features softened almost imperceptibly, and his sharp blue eyes suddenly lost their light, as though they no longer saw the outer world. But the Wanderer cared for none of these things, and bestowed no attention upon his companion's face. He preferred the little man's silence to his wild talk, but he was determined, if possible, to extract some further information concerning Unorna, and before many seconds had elapsed he interrupted Keyork's meditations with a question.
"You tell me to see for myself," he said. "I would like to know what I am to expect. Will you not enlighten me?"
"What?" asked the other vaguely, as though roused from sleep.
"If I go to Unorna and ask a consultation of her, as though she were a common somnambulist, and if she deigns to place her powers at my disposal what sort of assistance shall I most probably get?"
They had been walking slowly forward, and Keyork again stopped, rapping the pavement with his iron-shod stick, and looking up from under his bushy, overhanging eyebrows.
"Of two things, one will happen," he answered. "Either she will herself fall into the abnormal state and will answer correctly any questions you put to her, or she will hypnotise you, and you will yourself see—what you wish to see."
"You yourself. The peculiarity of the woman is her duality, her double power. She can, by an act of volition, become hypnotic, clairvoyant—whatever you choose to call it. Or, if her visitor is at all sensitive, she can reverse the situation and play the part of the hypnotiser. I never heard of a like case."
"After all, I do not see why it should not be so," said the Wanderer thoughtfully. "At all events, whatever she can do, is evidently done by hypnotism, and such extraordinary experiments have succeeded of late—"
"I did not say that there was nothing but hypnotism in her processes."
"What then? Magic?" The Wanderer's lip curled scornfully.
"I do not know," replied the little man, speaking slowly. "Whatever her secret may be, she keeps it, even when speaking in sleep. This I can tell you. I suspect that there is some other being, or person, in that queer old house of hers whom she consults on grave occasions. At a loss for an answer to a difficult scientific question, I have known her to leave the room and to come back in the course of a few minutes with a reply which I am positive she could never have framed herself."
"She may have consulted books," suggested the Wanderer.
"I am an old man," said Keyork Arabian suddenly. "I am a very old man; there are not many books which I have not seen and partially read at one time or at another, and my memory is surprisingly good. I have excellent reasons for believing that her information is not got from anything that was ever written or printed."
"May I ask of what general nature your questions were?" inquired the other, more interested than he had hitherto been in the conversation.
"They referred to the principles of embalmment."
"Much has been written about that since the days of the Egyptians."
"The Egyptians!" exclaimed Keyork with great scorn. "They embalmed their dead after a fashion. Did you ever hear that they embalmed the living?" The little man's eyes shot fire.
"No, nor will I believe in any such outrageous impossibilities! If that is all, I have little faith in Unorna's mysterious counsellor."
"The faith which removes mountains is generally gained by experience when it is gained at all, and the craving for explanation takes the place, in some minds, of a willingness to learn. It is not my business to find explanations, nor to raise my little self to your higher level, by standing upon this curbstone, in order to deliver a lecture in the popular form, upon matters that interest me. It is enough that I have found what I wanted. Go and do likewise. See for yourself. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. You are unhappy, and unhappiness is dangerous, in rare cases fatal. If you tell me to-morrow that Unorna is a charlatan, you will be in no worse plight than to-day, nor will your opinion of her influence mine. If she helps you to find what you want—so much the better for you—how much the better, and how great the risk you run, are questions for your judgment."
"I will go," answered the Wanderer, after a moment's hesitation.
"Very good," said Keyork Arabian. "If you want to find me again, come to my lodging. Do you know the house of the Black Mother of God?"
"Yes—there is a legend about a Spanish picture of our Lady once preserved there—"
"Exactly, it takes its name from that black picture. It is on the corner of the Fruit Market, over against the window at which the Princess Windischgratz was shot. I live in the upper story. Good-bye."
After the Wanderer had left her, Unorna continued to hold in her hand the book she had again taken up, following the printed lines mechanically from left to right, from the top of the page to the foot. Having reached that point, however, she did not turn over the leaf. She was vaguely aware that she had not understood the sense of the words, and she returned to the place at which she had begun, trying to concentrate her attention upon the matter, moving her fresh lips to form the syllables, and bending her brows in the effort of understanding, so that a short, straight furrow appeared, like a sharp vertical cut extending from between the eyes to the midst of the broad forehead. One, two and three sentences she grasped and comprehended; then her thoughts wandered again, and the groups of letters passed meaningless before her sight. She was accustomed to directing her intelligence without any perceptible effort, and she was annoyed at being thus led away from her occupation, against her will and in spite of her determination. A third attempt showed her that it was useless to force herself any longer, and with a gesture and look of irritation she once more laid the volume upon the table at her side.
During a few minutes she sat motionless in her chair, her elbow leaning on the carved arm-piece, her chin supported upon the back of her half-closed hand, of which the heavy, perfect fingers were turned inwards, drooping in classic curves towards the lace about her throat. Her strangely mismatched eyes stared vacantly towards an imaginary horizon, not bounded by banks of flowers, nor obscured by the fantastic foliage of exotic trees.
Presently she held up her head, her white hand dropped upon her knee, she hesitated an instant, and then rose to her feet, swiftly, as though she had made a resolution and was about to act upon it. She made a step forward, and then paused again, while a half-scornful smile passed like a shadow over her face. Very slowly she began to pace the marble floor, up and down in the open space before her chair, turning and turning again, the soft folds of her white gown following her across the smooth pavement with a gentle, sweeping sound, such as the breeze makes among flowers in spring.
"Is it he?" she asked aloud in a voice ringing with the joy and the fear of a passion that has waited long and is at last approaching the fulfilment of satisfaction.
No answer came to her from among the thick foliage nor in the scented breath of the violets and the lilies. The murmuring song of the little fountain alone disturbed the stillness, and the rustle of her own garments as she moved.
"Is it he? Is it he? Is it he?" she repeated again and again, in varying tones, chiming the changes of hope and fear, of certainty and vacillation, of sadness and of gladness, of eager passion and of chilling doubt.
She stood still, staring at the pavement, her fingers clasped together, the palms of her hands turned downward, her arms relaxed. She did not see the dark red squares of marble, alternating with the white and the gray, but as she looked a face and a form rose before her, in the contemplation of which all her senses and faculties concentrated themselves. The pale and noble head grew very distinct in her inner sight, the dark gray eyes gazed sadly upon her, the passionate features were fixed in the expression of a great sorrow.
"Are you indeed he?" she asked, speaking softly and doubtfully, and yet unconsciously projecting her strong will upon the vision, as though to force it to give the answer for which she longed.
And the answer came, imposed by the effort of her imagination upon the thing imagined. The face suddenly became luminous, as with a radiance within itself; the shadows of grief melted away, and in their place trembled the rising light of a dawning love. The lips moved and the voice spoke, not as it had spoken to her lately, but in tones long familiar to her in dreams by day and night.
"I am he, I am that love for whom you have waited; you are that dear one whom I have long sought throughout the world. The hour of our joy has struck, the new life begins to-day, and there shall be no end."
Unorna's arms went out to grasp the shadow, and she drew it to her in her fancy and kissed its radiant face.
"To ages of ages!" she cried.
Then she covered her eyes as though to impress the sight they had seen upon the mind within, and groping blindly for her chair sank back into her seat. But the mechanical effort of will and memory could not preserve the image. In spite of all inward concentration of thought, its colours faded, its outlines trembled, grew faint and vanished, and darkness was in its place. Unorna's hand dropped to her side, and a quick throb of pain stabbed her through and through, agonising as the wound of a blunt and jagged knife, though it was gone almost before she knew where she had felt it. Then her eyes flashed with unlike fires, the one dark and passionate as the light of a black diamond, the other keen and daring as the gleam of blue steel in the sun.
"Ah, but I will!" she exclaimed. "And what I will—shall be."
As though she were satisfied with the promise thus made to herself, she smiled, her eyelids drooped, the tension of her frame was relaxed, and she sank again into the indolent attitude in which the Wanderer had found her. A moment later the distant door turned softly upon its hinges and a light footfall broke the stillness. There was no need for Unorna to speak in order that the sound of her voice might guide the new comer to her retreat. The footsteps approached swiftly and surely. A young man of singular beauty came out of the green shadows and stood beside the chair in the open space.
Unorna betrayed no surprise as she looked up into her visitor's face. She knew it well. In form and feature the youth represented the noblest type of the Jewish race. It was impossible to see him without thinking of a young eagle of the mountains, eager, swift, sure, instinct with elasticity, far-sighted and untiring, strong to grasp and to hold, beautiful with the glossy and unruffled beauty of a plumage continually smoothed in the sweep and the rush of high, bright air.
Israel Kafka stood still, gazing down upon the woman he loved, and drawing his breath hard between his parted lips. His piercing eyes devoured every detail of the sight before him, while the dark blood rose in his lean olive cheek, and the veins of his temples swelled with the beating of his quickened pulse.
The single indifferent word received the value of a longer speech from the tone in which it was uttered, and from the look and gesture which accompanied it. Unorna's voice was gentle, soft, half-indolent, half-caressing, half-expectant, and half-careless. There was something almost insolent in its assumption of superiority, which was borne out by the little defiant tapping of two long white fingers upon the arm of the carved chair. And yet, with the rising inflection of the monosyllable there went a raising of the brows, a sidelong glance of the eyes, a slowly wreathing smile that curved the fresh lips just enough to unmask two perfect teeth, all of which lent to the voice a meaning, a familiarity, a pliant possibility of favourable interpretation, fit rather to flatter a hope than to chill a passion.
The blood beat more fiercely in the young man's veins, his black eyes gleamed yet more brightly, his pale, high-curved nostrils quivered at every breath he drew. The throbbings of his heart unseated his thoughts and strongly took possession of the government of his body. Under an irresistible impulse he fell upon his knees beside Unorna, covering her marble hand with all his lean, dark fingers and pressing his forehead upon them, as though he had found and grasped all that could be dear to him in life.
"Unorna! My golden Unorna!" he cried, as he knelt.
Unorna looked down upon his bent head. The smile faded from her face, and for a moment a look of hardness lingered there, which gave way to an expression of pain and regret. As though collecting her thoughts she closed her eyes, as she tried to draw back her hand; then as he held it still, she leaned back and spoke to him.
"You have not understood me," she said, as quietly as she could.
The strong fingers were not lifted from hers, but the white face, now bloodless and transparent, was raised to hers, and a look of such fear as she had never dreamed of was in the wide black eyes.
"Not—understood?" he repeated in startled, broken tones.
Unorna sighed, and turned away, for the sight hurt her and accused her.
"No, you have not understood. Is it my fault? Israel Kafka, that hand is not yours to hold."
"Not mine? Unorna!" Yet he could not quite believe what she said.
"I am in earnest," she answered, not without a lingering tenderness in the intonation. "Do you think I am jesting with you, or with myself?"
Neither of the two stirred during the silence which followed. Unorna sat quite still, staring fixedly into the green shadows of the foliage, as though not daring to meet the gaze she felt upon her. Israel Kafka still knelt beside her, motionless and hardly breathing, like a dangerous wild animal startled by an unexpected enemy, and momentarily paralysed in the very act of springing, whether backward in flight, or forward in the teeth of the foe, it is not possible to guess.
"I have been mistaken," Unorna continued at last. "Forgive—forget—"
Israel Kafka rose to his feet and drew back a step from her side. All his movements were smooth and graceful. The perfect man is most beautiful in motion, the perfect woman in repose.
"How easy it is for you!" exclaimed the Moravian. "How easy! How simple! You call me, and I come. You let your eyes rest on me, and I kneel before you. You sigh, and I speak words of love. You lift your hand and I crouch at your feet. You frown—and I humbly leave you. How easy!"
"You are wrong, and you speak foolishly. You are angry, and you do not weigh your words."
"Angry! What have I to do with so common a madness as anger? I am more than angry. Do you think that because I have submitted to the veering gusts of your good and evil humours these many months, I have lost all consciousness of myself? Do you think that you can blow upon me as upon a feather, from east and west, from north and south, hotly or coldly, as your unstable nature moves you? Have you promised me nothing? Have you given me no hope? Have you said and done nothing whereby you are bound? Or can no pledge bind you, no promise find a foothold in your slippery memory, no word of yours have meaning for those who hear it?"
"I never gave you either pledge or promise," answered Unorna in a harder tone. "The only hope I have ever extended to you was this, that I would one day answer you plainly. I have done so. You are not satisfied. Is there anything more to be said? I do not bid you leave my house for ever, any more than I mean to drive you from my friendship."
"From your friendship! Ah, I thank you, Unorna; I most humbly thank you! For the mercy you extend in allowing me to linger near you, I am grateful! Your friend, you say? Ay, truly, your friend and servant, your servant and your slave, your slave and your dog. Is the friend impatient and dissatisfied with his lot? A soft word shall turn away his anger. Is the servant over-presumptuous? Your scorn will soon teach him his duty. Is the slave disobedient? Blows will cure him of his faults. Does your dog fawn upon you too familiarly? Thrust him from you with your foot and he will cringe and cower till you smile again. Your friendship—I have no words for thanks!"
"Take it, or take it not—as you will." Unorna glanced at his angry face and quickly looked away.
"Take it? Yes, and more too, whether you will give it or not," answered Israel Kafka, moving nearer to her. "Yes. Whether you will, or whether you will not, I have all, your friendship, your love, your life, your breath, your soul—all, or nothing!"
"You are wise to suggest the latter alternative as a possibility," said Unorna coldly and not heeding his approach.
The young man stood still, and folded his arms. The colour had returned to his face and a deep flush was rising under his olive skin.
"Do you mean what you say?" he asked slowly. "Do you mean that I shall not have all, but nothing? Do you still dare to mean that, after all that has passed between you and me?"
Unorna raised her eyes and looked steadily into his.
"Israel Kafka, do not speak to me of daring."
But the young man's glance did not waver. The angry expression of his features did not relax; he neither drew back nor bent his head. Unorna seemed to be exerting all the strength of her will in the attempt to dominate him, but without result. In the effort she made to concentrate her determination her face grew pale and her lips trembled. Kafka faced her resolutely, his eyes on fire, the rich colour mantling in his cheeks.
"Where is your power now?" he asked suddenly. "Where is your witchery? You are only a woman, after all. You are only a weak woman!"
Very slowly he drew nearer to her side, his lithe figure bending a little as he looked down upon her. Unorna leaned far back, withdrawing her face from his as far as she could, but still trying to impose her will upon him.
"You cannot," he said between his teeth, answering her thought.
Men who have tamed wild beasts alone know what such a moment is like. A hundred times the brave man has held the tiger spell-bound and crouching under his cold, fearless gaze. The beast, ever docile and submissive, has cringed at his feet, fawned to his touch, and licked the hand that snatched away the half-devoured morsel. Obedient to voice and eye, the giant strength and sinewy grace have been debased to make the sport of multitudes; the noble, pliant frame has contorted itself to execute the mean antics of the low-comedy ape—to counterfeit death like a poodle dog; to leap through gaudily-painted rings at the word of command; to fetch and carry like a spaniel. A hundred times the changing crowd has paid its paltry fee to watch the little play that is daily acted behind the stout iron bars by the man and the beast. The man, the nobler, braver creature, is arrayed in a wretched flimsy finery of tights and spangles, parading his physical weakness and inferiority in the toggery of a mountebank. The tiger, vast, sleepy-eyed, mysterious, lies motionless in the front of his cage, the gorgeous stripes of his velvet coat following each curve of his body, from the cushions of his great fore paws to the arch of his gathered haunches. The watchfulness and flexible activity of the serpent and the strength that knows no master are clothed in the magnificent robes of the native-born sovereign. Time and times again the beautiful giant has gone through the slavish round of his mechanical tricks, obedient to the fragile creature of intelligence, to the little dwarf, man, whose power is in his eyes and heart only. He is accustomed to the lights, to the spectators, to the laughter, to the applause, to the frightened scream of the hysterical women in the audience, to the close air and to the narrow stage behind the bars. The tamer in his tights and tinsel has grown used to his tiger, to his emotions, to his hourly danger. He even finds at last that his mind wanders during the performance, and that at the very instant when he is holding the ring for the leap, or thrusting his head into the beast's fearful jaws, he is thinking of his wife, of his little child, of his domestic happiness or household troubles, rather than of what he is doing. Many times, perhaps many hundreds of times, all passes off quietly and successfully. Then, inevitably, comes the struggle. Who can tell the causes? The tiger is growing old, or is ill fed, or is not well, or is merely in one of those evil humours to which animals are subject as well as their masters. One day he refuses to go through with the performance. First one trick fails, and then another. The public grows impatient, the man in spangles grows nervous, raises his voice, stamps loudly with his foot, and strikes his terrible slave with his light switch. A low, deep sound breaks from the enormous throat, the spectators hold their breath, the huge, flexible limbs are gathered for the leap, and in the gaslight and the dead silence man and beast are face to face. Life hangs in the balance, and death is at the door.