“And how did the tigress conduct herself in the sheepfold where she was penned?” – ANONYMOUS, The Romance of Chastisement
When I awoke that morning, I was for a moment at a loss as to how much of the horror that I felt was owing to any actual occurrence and how much of it was due to the awful presentiment of doom that had visited me during that night of dreaming. As I rose into a sitting position and tried to collect my thoughts, I heard the sound of approaching steps and looked up to see Judge Complin’s approach. He was dressed in the flowing sable robes of his office while in one hand he trailed a riding crop as though he had only dismounted from his steed a moment ago. I have already mentioned that I have a nervous disposition; that I have always held a peculiar reverence and horror for stables because of the memories that they evoke; and so you will not be amazed to know that I shuddered when I caught the smell of horses as he approached, even though to a less sensual observer, there was nothing particular significant in this detail.
Both I and my fellow cellmate – who had introduced himself some while back as a Mr. Granville – watched as the Judge continued down the prison hallway, and as he observed with a distant yet somehow intrigued eye the various prisoners who stood at attention in his presence. There was something peculiarly charged about the atmosphere; it was something like a set of schoolboys standing before a Latin master or the residents of a harem reacting to the sudden appearance of their lord.
At last, he paused before the cell that imprisoned me and Granville. I expected that awful eye to fall on me with same impassioned look that had held me yesterday, but in this expectation I was, happily, disappointed. His gaze was fixed on my friend instead, who responded with a pale, speechless look. I watched this exchange of glances, feeling the keenest pity for my friend. At last, the Judge pointed deprecatingly to my friend with his crop and one of the guards caught him and dragged him out of the cell. As they locked the cell door again, I caught the bars and shouted for them to let the poor man alone. But neither the guard nor Judge Complin himself spared me the slightest of glances.
Now did I own myself truly baffled by this entire encounter. I began to even wonder whether or not I had dreamt all the events that I recounted in the last chapter. Was this truly the same being who had held me and whispered gloatingly to my soul of its fate? True, the same awful look of expectation had been in his gaze, but it had all been reserved for my unfortunate companion. For some reason, my sense of relief gave way to a sense of irritable restlessness, more than likely engendered by the confusion that this inconsistent behavior created in me.
To relieve myself of some measure of the unease that this bizarre situation had created in me, I took to thinking practically of my circumstances and what course would be most effective in alleviating them. Naturally, my thoughts moved to my mistress and at the memory of her familiar presence, a tear dimmed my eye. I could believe that she hated me enough now to wish me gone – but I would not, could not, believe that she wished me hanged. No, more probably she had envisaged her young orphan mewed up within these massy walls until, robbed of both youth and vigor and preserved from the sight and knowledge of all women but herself, the law at last released him to flutter like a homing bird into the shelter of her ruthless embrace again.
I sighed with earnest hope at this vision and, taking out a volume from the breast pocket of my coat – as it happened, a copy of Mr. Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” – I tore out a page and began to pen the following epistle, with the aid of a bit of charcoal and a splinter of wood:
To the Dread Sovereign Who Holds My Life and Soul Enthralled:–
Banish me from your presence, bar me from your favours, blind me of your light forever if you must – but is my blood truly the offering of penance that you wish to receive from the truest devotee that has ever and will ever serve you? O, if you wish it, then I will try, I suppose, to grant it with as cheerful a heart as I can, for I know that I sinned greatly in provoking you, but practically speaking, it is difficult for a young man of good education and active temperament to reconcile himself to such an abrupt and uncompromising fate, and for this reason, I beg you to reconsider –
I paused for a long while, perhaps several minutes, to consider what I was asking my mistress to reconsider. Before I could continue, I overheard the return of my cellmate, the judge, and the accompanying guard, and I hastened to stow away my half-finished epistle.
Granville looked shaken, but there was a peculiar look of hope in his haggard gaze that surprised me. I cannot say that it had the effect of comforting me, however, for when I glanced at Complin, there was a look of gratification that made me wonder at what had passed between them. I knew that no innocent thing could provoke a look of pleasure in one such as he.
“You will suffer,” the judge said gently to Granville. “But it is only justice’s hand that you feel. There is still a chance for relief, if you but honor the assurances that you have made me – that you will reform.”
My own cheeks burned as I recalled how similar his voice had seemed when he had threatened me. What were these assurances and what was this suffering and relief that he was promising my companion?
“I will – oh God – I will!” Granville half-whispered brokenly.
Complin smiled, again with a look of sweet, heart-rending sympathy that made me fume. “Then you are saved.”
Unable to contain myself, I asked rather saucily: “And why am I not vouchsafed this chance for reform?”
The Judge spared a glancing, sidelong look in my direction. Then, again addressing Granville, he remarked: “Your trial begins tomorrow – but take heart. Unlike some of the denizens in this lightless dungeon, you have shown promise – ”
“And I have not, my lord?” I countered. “I seem to remember Your Grace speaking of my promise at great length yesterday.”
The Judge began to show signs of visible irritation, though he strove to quell them. Continuing as though uninterrupted, he said, “—and as you have shown promise, you will be granted clemency, so long as you fulfill your obligations.”
Granville would have perhaps reacted in a groveling manner befitting one in his particular situation, but my remarks had bewildered him to such an extent that he merely replied with a few cautious expressions of gratitude. Complin observed this reluctance with a look of suppressed fury, knowing full well that I was the cause of his present victim’s confusion, thus robbing him of the gratifying spectacle of supplication that he craved.
“Your virtue is your redeemer,” he said at last to Granville before turning to depart.
“For virtue is most assuredly the arbiter of all our fates!” I muttered.
He turned suddenly and looked me fully in the eye, his own eye blazing with a cold, suppressed passion that made my heart leap with awful apprehension.
“Enough!” he said. “Mr. Fell” (here he was addressing the guard) “take hold of that insolent creature. We shall treat his courtesies in kind.”
The guard took me by the shoulders and I was marched out of my cell, from that gloomy area of the prison, and conducted into a well-furnished anteroom that seemed markedly different from the rest of that grim place and was, I supposed, a chamber that Complin made use of as a personal office. He gestured distractedly towards a divan and the guard led me to it, indicating that I sit. I did so, my mind racing as I contemplated the enormity of the passion that I had provoked in my persecutor. Another look from the judge assured me that my fears were well-justified. He stood before me, his shadow covering me, and said, “You seem to be under a peculiar delusion. You seem to think that you have nothing to lose in provoking me.”
“That is not precisely correct,” I stammered.
“Oh?” he asked. “Then you still fear me?”
“Yes,” I assured him, lowering my voice with a chastened look. His gaze softened for a moment, but then he caught himself.
“Then what was the meaning of that little performance? How did you dare to rob me of Granville’s humiliation if you still feared me?”
“Well, Your Grace, you didn’t so much as give me a second glance the whole time you treated with my companion and, given the nature of the awful threats that you delivered the day before, how else did you expect me to react to such a sudden and inexplicable coldness? It’s difficult enough for me to accustom myself to the fact that you dote on the thought of my imminent hanging.”
Complin considered this for a moment. “I believe that I understand you. But if I catch you thwarting my pleasure again for the sake of your trifling fears and jealousies, I swear that I shall make you wish you were already hanging. If I choose to make you feel the pangs of bewilderment and confusion at my apparent disregard, then you shall suffer them. Have I not already allowed you a closer communion with me than all the others in this dismal place?” He paused and, cupping my chin in his hands, raised my lowered head so that I was forced to meet his awful, penetrating eye.
“Perhaps you are under a different delusion,” he suggested gently. “Perhaps you think that you can move me with silent looks and entreaties. Expel that hope, if such a hope exists, from your breast. You can no more move my heart than can you move a star from its setting in the sky. I determined from the moment that I laid eyes on you that you should be suspended and mauled on the altar of what you might term my ‘ideal fixation.’ Whether I return your gaze or whether I pretend that your existence is inconsequential to me, this truth remains. Your attempts to soften my resolve are as futile as a man who tries to save himself by returning the embrace of the suffocating serpent. Your struggles, you see, only provoke and harden my resolve.”
“What is his fate to you? But regardless, his fate is different from your own.”
“Why? Why?” He stroked my hair in an absent-minded fashion. “Because my desires decree and require it. Direct your questions to the seat of my appetite, if you can find its mouth. I should very much like to hear the answer myself.” He nodded to the guard. “Return him to his cell. And young man?” I turned and met his gaze: friendly but with the faint suggestion of a lurid, hideous gleam like a floating mote from Hell. “Never again provoke me as you did today. I will take great pleasure in giving you reasons to regret it.”