“I took hold of his hand; my fingers trembled; I grasped and pressed the fingers of my tyrant.”
— WILLIAM GODWIN, St. Leon
The heart has its own strange will, for as I escaped the Stanehyve prison, the blood of my jailer still dripping from my hands, the first prospect that I looked to was not the open road, but instead the remote and alien light of the moon. The wind was brisk and unusually warm for a Scottish evening, whipping the branches of the tall oaks that grew by the prison’s stone walls, and through their black, leafless arms, I glimpsed the moon – not radiant and silver, but dim and crimson as a poppy bud, obscured from time to time by a passing skein of cloud.
I had not been a murderer when I had first been imprisoned within the stony fastness by which I now stood in the cold spring air – nor had I been a murderer when I had been condemned to death by hanging – but I was a murderer now, bathed in a murderer’s cold sweat, and impressed with a sense of horror and desolation such as I had never felt before, not even on that first awful night after I had received my fatal sentence. As great and insupportable as my afflictions and sufferings had been since my arrest, I had never felt myself separated from my fellow man – only reviled and execrated. I was now free again – I, who was to have been hung the following morning – but at what a cost? I would live, yes; live to recall ever and ever, until the memory at last drove me either to madness or despair, the feel of my jailer sink beneath my murderous blows, his body grown horribly limp in my arms.
My senses revolted at the recollection and I was sick for some minutes before at last, exhausted, my reason returned to me and I began to remember that perhaps it would be in my best interests to quit this place as soon as possible. As I followed the road that led away from town, keeping to the shadowed hedges and trees as much as possible, another recollection came unbidden to mind: that of the judge who had presided over my trial, whose brutal sentence had tortured me to the extreme act that had placed me beyond all hope of peace. I recalled his face remarkably well: the plain, severe features, the sharp cheekbones that had an almost bruising effect on the profile of his face, the eyes – remote, cut-off, questioning…
The sound of a passing horseman brought me back to my present, miserable situation for a moment and I sheltered myself in the shadow beneath an oak, watching until the stranger was out of sight. Had the hands that held those reins ever smelt of blood as mine did? I shuddered and thought again of the awful difference that now held me at such a remove from the rest of mankind. The immediate cause had, of course, been my love of life and my profound terror of dying at the end of a rope. But the actuating principle that had brought this cause into being, the hideous spur that had caused me to bloodily surrender the life of another in order to save my own: this had been produced by none other than Judge John Complin, the man whose face had grown as familiar to my own waking thoughts and dreams as the face of a sweetheart must be to men whose destines have been kinder than mine own.
I recalled how on that awful first day that marked the beginning of my trial, he had been late in arriving to the courthouse. When he had at last showed, he had looked in my direction and I had felt a faint flicker of hope when I met that look, a hope that prevailed in spite of the awful whispers that told me that Complin was a hanging judge. For that look had held such a peculiar sympathy, almost an angelic grace, in it that I felt that any man who could look at another man in such a fashion could not act without mercy. But that brief moment of assurance ended, for somehow he sensed that I perceived that sympathy and in an instant he quenched whatever angel-part of his soul had shone from out his gaze, and the look that fell on me was of such blank severity that I felt my own soul stiffen beneath it…
The evidence martialled against me was unanswerable; the honor of the witnesses, irreproachable; my crime, the vilest and most wretched of its kind. I had robbed the mistress of the household that I served, a mistress whose generosity left me no recourse to sympathy, no motive except the most perverse ingratitude. I had robbed that She who had allowed me, miserable and unloved orphan, to kneel by her side as she read aloud to me from volumes of poetry and taught me to read alongside her – that She who had treated me since boyhood with that mixture of cold command and reserved tenderness that ensures the adoration of its beneficiary – that She who had raised me from scullery boy to steward and had trusted me as much, nay more, than one of her own family. Had she not told me often enough during our long, midnight conversations during those winter months when her husband left for a tour of his plantation in Bermuda, or her son departed for Oxford, that I had become something of a husband, something of a son to her? Certainly she did not feel the loss of them when I was there to fill their place – and so I did, but with a reverence and fear that neither husband nor son could have felt for her as I, her devoted servant since birth, felt.
Why then did I try to thieve such a mistress, blaspheme my irreproachable Artemis? The act was committed in such a heat of impassioned perversity that it is difficult to recall. I think that it was jealousy. After her husband was slaughtered in a slave riot – news that she greeted with barely the flicker of an eyelash and that afforded me no small amount of pleasure – her son, Richard, returned from Oxford and said that he intended to manage the estate for a while before taking his father’s place in Bermuda. This Richard took an instant disliking to me, I suspect because he sensed that I had usurped his rightful place in his mother’s heart – a place that he had never felt any interest in claiming until now, when it was far too late. My mistress was never warm to anyone, for it was not her way, but it was evident in the marks of regard that she bestowed upon me that I was her favored one. Richard retaliated by attempting to remind me of my place, conferring on me menial tasks to humiliate and lower my self-regard.
I looked to my mistress for rescue and here I was sorely disappointed. I had not forgotten that peculiarity of taste that caused her to torment what she loved, for I had received ample proof of it all my life. But I had never felt it so keenly as I did when I found myself kneeling upon the floor, soaking up the claret that Richard had carelessly let spill, my cheeks burning with silent rage and humiliation, and looked to her for succor. When her gaze moved to her son, her eyes reflected a kind of calm contempt; but when her gaze moved to meet me, her eyes became surcharged with a look of animated pleasure that left me in no doubt as to the kind of effect that my suffering was having on my mistress’s senses.
“You bear yourself with such patience,” she observed in such a way as to cause me to blush as helplessly as a child. Afterwards, during our midnight conversations in her chamber, she would compliment my silence in the face of her son’s brutish behavior while recalling to my memory the particularities of what I had been obligated to do, forcing me to relive my degradation while she kissed my hands and watched me attempt to hide my distress. How could I tell her that while I could tolerate and even enjoy these games when only the two of us jointly ruled the household, they were insupportable when witnessed and instigated by her oafish son? Would there have been any use in such a confession? Alas, I suspect that it would have only provided another refinement to the spectacle of my debasement.
At last, the time came when I could bear no longer the petty cruelties that were heaped upon me continually. My intention was not to punish my mistress, but to cause her to hate her son for the rift that he had created betwixt us two. Perhaps I held too high a notion for my own place in her affections, but I felt that if I committed some awful crime against the household, that perhaps it would cause her to consider my suffering in a different light and restore me to the place of high-standing that I had enjoyed before her son’s return.
That I was caught is evident by my arrest. One early morning, I was surprised by a scullery maid with a sack full of the family silver and she raised such a storm that all the household was awake in less than half a minute. I was seized by one of the stable hands at the very moment that my mistress had descended to the servant’s quarters, candle in hand, to discern what the commotion was about. When she saw me, held fast like a common criminal with the scattered silver at my feet, the nature of my enterprise became all too clear. Her eyes fixed me and the look in them made me fully and horribly aware of the enormity of what I had done. I felt my breath catch in my throat; she struck me across the face and I was mute with horror, but also with a kind of insolent ecstasy. She looked into my eyes for a long moment, studying my face. I knew by the set of her mouth that I had trespassed too far and I guessed that my fate would be harsh, but even with this knowledge to brace me, I still blanched when she looked over my shoulder at the servant who held me and told him to take me to the stables.
Her son Richard had arrived on the scene by this time and his countenance expressed more pity and sympathy for me than I had thought possible from one who had formerly only shown me contempt. He could not have known the history between my mistress and myself that caused my soul to tremble when she gave the command for me to be taken to the stables. But he must have seen the stern pallor of her visage and the pitiless light in her eye – he must have seen my mute supplication – and seeing us two, something of what I had to suffer must have been communicated to him. Even as he stepped forward, perhaps to interpose on my behalf, his mother – my mistress – looked in his direction and something in her eye caused him to stumble back and fall silent. Then she repeated her order and I was dragged from the kitchen into the cold spring air.
My own emotions were, as usual, confused and disordered – I naturally felt a greater terror at seeing her son’s reaction to her look, but I confess that I also felt a kind of delicious bewilderment as well. Who was I –worthless orphan that I was – that I had provoked such an impassioned response from so great a lady, so sublime and awful a being? A portion of my heart quailed and sickened; another portion cheerfully leapt at the prospect of my imminent doom. I feel that she noted my disordered response, for occasionally she gave me a sidelong look that seemed to express a certain stern gratification.
The stable doors were opened and I was thrown headlong into the warm, murky darkness within. I heard the unsettled stirring of the horses in their stalls and my mistress’s voice commanding the young men to secure me. Oh God, thought I, then I truly am meant to suffer as I did three years ago. When the ostlers seized me and began to tether my wrists with a bridle to a low, overhanging rafter, I tried to catch my mistress’s eyes and implore her with my gaze to relent. She refused to meet my eyes, instead ordering the young men to tighten the bridle around my wrists still more and tie me in such a way that I could barely gain a footing on the stable floor. When I attempted in my halting way to speak, she ordered them to gag me with another bridle. Then she commanded them to leave the two of us alone.
For a long while, she stood there and silently observed the suspended spectacle of my degradation. She knew full well the degree of apprehension that I was suffering at that moment – after all, it was after the first time that she had done with me when I was a young man that I had developed my morbid fascination for the smell and sight of horses, stables, and anything that remotely brought to mind the sensations of that experience. I cannot even recall exactly what my crime that first time had been – the idea of something trifling, a stolen book or a stolen ribbon, comes to mind, but I am not certain, for the enormity of my punishment blotted the crime utterly from my memory. It was not the first time that I had been beaten by previous masters, but it was certainly the worst – and that long summer afternoon, my mistress had spent several hours together in bringing me closer to Hell than I had ever come in all my years. I was still visited with nightmares made up of half-memories from that day – a barn filled with an oppressive heat and light, the smell of leather, the occasional sip of wine that my mistress held to my lips when I came close to fainting…
These scattered thoughts were interrupted when my mistress at last turned from me and moved to the wall. I followed her hand with my gaze as she took down one of the long horsewhips that hung by the bridles.
“Poor creature: how sorely you misjudged me,” she said. “Did you think that your treachery was some boyish prank to win back my good graces? Pathetic, hopeless being, know this: that while you suffered before, you still possessed my good will, but now that you have dared to cross me, you shall suffer still more – but without my blessing, without my grace, without my pity. You shall suffer as you have never suffered in your life and when I have finished with you, I shall cast you into the arms of Justice to draw wormwood and gall from her iron breast.”
She removed the bridle from my mouth – I thought it was to hear me plead for mercy, but it was to force me to kiss the instrument of my chastisement. This I did with a ready spirit, my heart burning with a fanatic’s devotion, for I still could not believe that I was truly an outcast from her household – and before she withdrew her hand, she allowed me to lay my lips against her hand. I could see in her eyes that she was marveling against her will at my reverence.
“Madam,” I said, looking her steadily in the eye. “Do with me as you will, only…” Here, I paused and – I shudder to admit it – added with a kind of insolent smile, “Do not drive me from your sight.”
I saw her blanch at the look in my eyes. It was peculiar to see my tormentress stand before me – me, the subdued, the transfixed, the victim – and start at whatever she saw in my visage.
“Please, I implore you,” I said and then dared to whisper, “My mistress?”
I believe that it was the claim implied by this last daring impertinence that sealed my fate. She gazed at me for a long while with a look of such mingled horror and unwilling affection that my blood froze beneath it. Then she removed a kerchief from her pocket and tied it about my head, blindfolding me.
“I see now how hardened your heart is,” she said, setting the cold bridle in my mouth once again. “Now, orphan: enjoy the fruits of your presumption.”
A long, a very long while later, I fell into a swoon. Even in that state, I heard and felt the whip, but it was like the wind of a thousand angel-wings beating together in the darkness: a cloud of heavenly witnesses in a lightless court of justice fanning me with the flames of a Hell that in spite of their cruelest efforts could only warm, could never scorch, my soul.
© 2015 by Colin Harker. All rights reserved.