While in the last chapter we left our young hero in a state of dark foreboding, here at last certain mysteries are revealed — naturally only to result in an increase of horror rather than its surcease!
I the rather
Look on such pangs as terror ill conceals,
The dry fixed eyeball; the pale quivering lip,
Which tell me that the spirit weeps within
Tears bitterer than the bloody sweat of Christ.
I rarely kill the body, which preserves,
Like a strong prison, the soul within my power,
Wherein I feed it with the breath of fear
For hourly pain.
— PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, The Cenci
One afternoon when we were out in the prison yard, taking our daily exercise, I happened to provoke one of the more brutal prisoners. At first I could not escape him and suffered a brutal thrashing. When at last I broke free, I made a dash for another end of the yard, whereupon I promptly lost my footing and fell headlong to the ground. Stunned, I barely had time to gather my wits before I realized that a shadow had fallen athwart me. From my fallen position, I raised my eyes to look on the face of the man who stood above me. This was my first glimpse of John Complin – my first sight of that peculiar, questioning look that I came to realize was habitual to him – and it was, of course, vouchsafed to me as I lay there at his feet, tasting blood and the foul prisonyard dirt.
I have often wondered why it is that I so often encounter persons who take such an especial delight in suffering. I did not realize it until long after my arrest, but it is the fault of my face, which draws such souls to me like an irresistible summons. I was entirely unconscious, then, of the effect that I produced in these sorts of temperaments and only realized it after I was told – after it was explained to me that a certain thrilling look came into my eye when confronted with any awful power, a kind of defiled innocence that seemed to suggest that I was at once ignorant but curious of the power that was to overcome me. This look, I was told, was such that it could not help but harden the torturer’s heart and confirm in him a terrible resolve to fulfill that curiosity and make me feel the scourging strength that I was already fearfully intent on apprehending.
When Judge Complin saw me lying there at his feet, bloodied from the beating that I had taken from my fellow prisoner, he paused for a moment to study my face. Then, of a sudden, he knelt and silently raised me to my feet so that I found myself returning his gaze with, unconsciously, that very look of mine that always so unutterably seals my fate. When he saw this look, a corresponding flash appeared to brighten his eye, its intensity transfixing me so that I turned pale beneath its light. But I was greatly weakened from the abuse that I had undergone and before I could fully understand the look that Complin returned me, my legs gave way and I collapsed in a faint in his arms.
There is always something peculiar about finding oneself supported by another’s body, particularly when your own is suddenly helpless and enfeebled. It is as though the space that you inhabit within their embrace is a world sufficient unto itself: one that creates its own warmth, air, light, and solace. My head had of its own accord fallen against his shoulder and as he held me and as I felt the touch of his breath and felt him put a hand up to hold me more firmly, I brokenly whispered my thanks to him. In response, his grasp tightened about me and he put his lips to my ear:
“Young man,” he said. “When you are on the scaffold – and I know that you shall be, for I shall judge you – none in my memory will paint as moving a spectacle as yourself. For I swear by my eyes that I have never seen so perfect a sacrifice as yourself.”
I would have stiffened with terror at this, but I was too close to fainting to do so. Instead, Complin relaxed his grip somewhat so that my head now rested in the crook of his elbow at such an angle that he could look upon my face again and observe the effect of his words. I felt a cold crawl of horror, but I am not certain that this feeling was conveyed in my eyes. Whatever my expression was, he gazed upon it with a look of gratification until I at last found my tongue again and whispered, “Please spare me. I will make amends if you will only spare me.”
“Spare you from what, young man?” he asked me gently. “I have reserved for you the keenest and most irresistible of experiences. Do you not wish to thank the man who has deemed you the recipient of that most affecting of spectacles – the gallows-stage?”
“But, sir, I will do anything else you wish of me!”
“What else could I possibly wish?”
“What service could you possibly perform that would afford me a greater pleasure?”
I sighed melancholically. The judge wiped a stray tear from my eye with his hand and then put that same gloved finger to his mouth. I confess that my own mouth fell open in shock at this spectacle.
“Forgive me,” Complin said. “My anticipation grows apace. Your trial approaches and soon we shall meet again under different and more public circumstances. With others, I have deceived them and prolonged their agonies by showing them faint glimmers of hope, only to plunge them into despair at their final sentence. With you, however, I do not dissemble. I understand your look. You long for your fate.”
“I hardly wish to die!”
“No,” he said, again very gently. “But you wish to suffer.”
I was so astonished by these words that I was momentarily bereft of speech. Complin, understanding that he had gained a certain advantage over me by the wanton directness of his discourse, did not allow me the time to recover and contradict him.
“Soon we shall meet again,” he said, stroking my cheek with the kind of condescension that one affords a child or dog. “Until then, think on me. For the short duration of your life, it is my pleasure and mine alone that your existence and sufferings serve. Consecrate them to me – else your agonies shall seem utterly meaningless to you and the dullness of despair shall weigh your soul and drain you of vitality. And,” he added, cruelly tightening his grip on the back of my neck. “I crave and require that vitality. Do you understand me? I have it in my power to make your last months as agonizing or as luxurious as I desire. Do you believe that?”
“I believe and understand that I am entirely at your mercy and within your power,” I conceded with a resigned sigh.
He smiled with a kind of callous satisfaction at these words. “I shall return those pretty words with a demonstration of my power that is entirely in your favor.”
To the guards, he suddenly pointed at the prisoner who had savaged me so brutally. “I would have you tie that man to a post and deliver him – how many lashes would you say?” he asked me.
“I – I am not sure – ” I stammered.
“Fifty lashes,” Complin finished brusquely. As the man begged for mercy and as the guards advanced to do their lord’s work, I looked on in stunned surprise. The sentence was carried out and all the while, I felt Complin’s eyes upon me, studying my confused response to the awful fulfillment of his command.
“Why do you believe that man is suffering?” he asked me.
“Because he transgressed the law?” I asked.
“Your innocence is as charming as your curiosity,” he replied. “But do you believe that every man who has transgressed the law is suffering at this moment? No, of course not. He suffers because I willed that he suffer. Why are you not suffering at this moment? Because you are virtuous? No. Do you think that every man who is virtuous is without pain at this moment? It is only because I have suspended your suffering and it is my desire that at the moment you feel the comfort that only I can extend. My rule is as absolute as my motive is obscure.” He said all this as he continued to support me in a firm grasp that instilled in me a bewildered feeling at once of momentary security and future peril. “With this knowledge, young man, what is your feeling?”
“Gratitude,” I said dizzily.
He smiled at this and I knew that my reply had, for the first time, been the correct one.
“But, my lord, what can I do to change your will and make you prefer my comfort to my suffering?” I asked. “Surely there is something.”
He did not reply, only returned my pleading look with a gaze that was full of an amused pity.
A pang of homesickness for my mistress overwhelmed me. When she had threatened to deliver her wayward orphan into Justice’s hands, had she anticipated that Justice would have her own appetites? That the iron breast was not so impartially cold after all? If she could have seen me held in the grasp of this man of blood, my cheek resting upon that wicked breast, would she have regretted spurning me?
That night, I dreamt of my mistress. My tortured imagination took me back to that evening when her son had spilt the claret and I had abased myself before them both, wiping it up like a common servant. I recalled every particular of that moment, but every element of the atmosphere seemed charged with that peculiarly allegorical quality with which dreams often are imbued. The claret seemed like blood and even as I bent over it to soak it up with a cloth, a shadow fell athwart me and I looked up to see my mistress leaning towards me as though to take me in her arms and embrace me.
I felt her arms go around me and my senses felt overwhelmed with a sense of welcoming comfort. But in the same instant, I felt a strong grasp about my shoulders, drawing me back, and a chill horror descended upon me. The form that held me was undeniably a man’s and as I parted my lips to protest, a gloved hand fell over my mouth, silencing me. My mistress’s eyes flamed as she saw me held captive and I fancied that I heard her demand my release, though I did not see her lips move. In response, the man who held me tightened his grip upon my shoulder and, his fingers still covering my mouth and cheek, he spoke to her:
“Your reign has ended; mine has begun. You bridled this creature and taught him to love the bit and the taste of his own blood. But I shall drive him before me and turn him down paths that he has never felt beneath your hand.”
At these words, I felt a peculiar mixture of emotions: on the one hand, a sense of wrenching poignancy and loss, but also a strange curiosity at the portent of these obscure words. A shuddering sigh escaped me and perhaps my captor felt it, for while the grasp on my shoulder tightened, the hand upon my lips relaxed somewhat and I felt those gloved fingers offer my cheek the faintest of caresses as though to comfort and restore my flagging courage. And then came that gloating promise that made the very soul within me thrill and tremble:
“O creature who, by the grace of Heaven, has been so securely placed within my hands: I swear by my eyes that I shall see you raised up like Our Lord – not upon a cross, ‘tis true, but for my purposes, in as efficacious and gratifying a fashion.”
O God, I thought, let my ears be closed before I hear another hideous word fall to curse me.
“You shall look into my eyes as you feel them tie your wrists together upon the scaffold – as you feel the noose tighten your throat like a suffocating garland. You shall struggle to think of your mother – of your mistress – of your ministering angel – of God Himself. But all you will be able to think of as you faint in the hangman’s suffocating embrace, while you feel the world beneath you turn to air – will be me.”
I felt the cursing kiss that my tormentor set upon my ear as though to seal these words within me – and I came awake with a start in my prison cot, bathed in my own warm sweat.
to be continued…
Read the first chapter in order to discern the beginning of our persecuted hero’s tribulations.
© 2015 by Colin Harker. All rights reserved.