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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Witch Of Prague - Chapter 1
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The Witch Of Prague - Chapter 1 Post by :cyberbob Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :2136

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The Witch Of Prague - Chapter 1


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,

"Beatrice! Beatrice!"

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.

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