THE WITCH OF PRAGUE
F. Marion Crawford
Here is another classic of occult fiction. The period of the story is not given, but since its author, F. Marion Crawford, died in 1909, Bohemia and its capital Prague, must still have been part of the Austrian Empire. Yet, as electricity is mentioned several times, this is clearly no romance of the Middle Ages.
The city must have been much as it was when I visited it between the wars. The Czechs had gained their independence and were not yet under the thumb of Soviet Russia; but it had long since lost its pristine glory.
For centuries Prague had been the capital of the Germanic Empire, but from early in the fifth century the majority of the Bohemian population had, under the leadership of John Huss, broken away from the Church of Rome. Two hundred years of strife between Protestants and Catholics followed. About 1617 the Emperor moved his capital to Vienna. Soon afterwards a great revolt by the Protestant Czechs was utterly crushed. Their nobility was executed or exiled, their lands were confiscated and the people became leaderless.
Unlike Budapest, where the Hungarian aristocracy continued right up to the Second World War to live in luxurious palaces and the City was famous as the gayest in Europe, Prague declined. The magnificent Hradschin Palace, founded in the eighth century, was still to be seen across the Moldau River with the great Teynkirche, where John Huss preached, and other ancient buildings, but the city had sunk to a dreary industrial centre with hardly a decent hotel in it.
The book might well be called ‘The Wizard’ rather than ‘The Witch’ of Prague, for that mysterious, elderly dwarf, Keyork Arabian, is certainly the most evil character in it.
The mental picture conjured up in most people’s minds by the word ‘witch’ is of an aged, crook-backed hag with straggly, grey hair beneath a steeple-crowned hat; but the records of history tell us that witches were often young and beautiful. Such was the case with the wealthy Unorna who, during the icy cold – so admirably described – that afflicts Prague in the winter, spent her days in the huge conservatory of her mansion among lofty palms, tropical plants in bloom and breathed in the heady scent from many lovely flowers.
Unorna’s eyes were of different colours and her power lay in her ability to throw people into so deep a hypnotic trance that they became slaves to her will, even believed her to be someone else and, on being woken, forgot the whole of their past. She was not by nature evil but fell so desperately in love that, out of jealousy, she sought to destroy her rival by a hideous sacrilege, and her mysterious dealings with Keyork Arabian in his attempt to prolong life indefinitely make fascinating reading.
Additional interest is given to the tale by the author’s penetrating analysis of the powers of the human mind, of the relation of the soul to the body and the still unsolved problem of how long after a person has been declared dead by a doctor he actually retains a spark of life.