“The kind hand trembled.” – CHARLES DICKENS
Weeks passed – weeks spent mostly in silence, for my companion was strangely pensive and withdrawn after his mysterious meeting with the Judge. I betook myself to my letter-writing, managing to finish and complete one epistle and beseeching one of the guards to send it to my mistress. Within several days, I was granted a reply – one that filled me at once with hope and dread:
You do well to address me as your sovereign and to beg my intersession, for who else would even think to succor you? You claim in your letter that your education has not prepared you for this trial. To whom do you owe this education, save myself? To whom did you owe your livelihood, save myself? You see that there is no one alive upon this earth who possesses a greater claim than I do on your life.
I have a certain influence over the courts that hold you at their mercy and this Judge Complin whom you fear is known to me. Rest assured that you shall not be hung without my consent and that while it is my wish that you suffer, it is not my will that you hang like a young dog. Dismiss this fear from your mind and endure your agonies for a season.
Have patience. If you bear yourself with nobility and loyalty, then you shall be kneeling at my feet again. I do long, I confess, to kiss your hands again.
The paper was signed with the imperceptible slash of ink that was my mistress’s signature. I read and reread its contents again and again, blushing even at her reserved expressions of affection and experiencing a sense of relief though also a lingering doubt. How long did my mistress mean for me to suffer? And were her assurances that she could subdue Complin’s will indeed true? I still recalled the touch of his hand in my hair during our last interview and the manner in which he had gazed at me with a transfixing look that left no doubt in my mind as to the surety of his intent to make me his devoted victim. I longed to believe that my life was held entirely in my mistress’s hands, but I could not so easily dismiss my terror of the Judge. In short, my days following the reception of this letter were spent in pondering the individual strengths of my two tyrants and wondering at whose hands I was indeed actually suffering.
I wrote another letter expressing my resignation to her will, while enumerating my own fear of Complin as clearly as I could without seeming to contradict her own assurance of her power. I received the following reply shortly after:
You tell me that you fear that the strength of Judge Complin’s desire is such that he will do all within his power to effect your hanging, regardless of my efforts or even the demands of the law itself. I have already assured you that your life is in my hands – but are you doing all within your power to save yourself? I have spoken to this judge on several occasions since your last letter and he confessed to me that the only thing that could move his heart was a certain kind of imploring look that moved him sensibly with feelings of pity too great to suppress. He said that you on occasion seemed ready to give him such a look, but then stifled it as though you were too afraid or proud to make such a silent entreaty. As I myself know how skilled you are in pleasing me with such looks, I request that you make it your business to petition the judge in this way.
One morning, so early that the sun had not even risen, I was awakened by approaching footsteps. I sat up in my cot, blinking in the lantern-light that filled the dim cell, and saw the guard haul Granville to his feet, clap his wrists in fetters, and lead him out. Judge Complin stood by, watching the proceedings with a distant look, and occasionally glancing my way as though to take in my own response to this unexpected event.
Granville asked what was about and was informed that his trial began this morning. He turned pale at this, but I spoke encouragingly to him, telling him that I was certain that he would be acquitted (in truth, I had no idea what he was convicted of, but he seemed such a gentle-minded man that I could not believe for a moment that he would suffer a severe penalty). While I spoke, Judge Complin turned his gaze fully upon me, though he did not seek to interrupt me. At that moment, I recalled my mistress’s advice, and – overcoming my fearful qualms – ventured to meet his eye, while attempting to muster as much of the anguish and uneasiness of mind that I felt into a single sustained, imploring look that might, perhaps, at last impress the impenetrable heart that my spoken words had made no dent upon.
He made no response, but I saw his lips give a faint tremor suggesting that he was undergoing the spiritual convulsions that accompany a violent emotion. He motioned for the guard to take me as well and once I was led out of the cell, he took my hands to fetter them himself and while his grasp possessed an extraordinary strength, I could feel that his hands were somewhat unsteady. I was about to ask why I was to be led out as well, but the look that he gave me as I parted my lips instantly silenced me. It was evident that his soul was striving with itself and that any interruption might result in the destruction rather than the redemption of the object that he contemplated. When he had finished securing me, he put his hand upon my shoulder and turning me about began to conduct me out of the prison, the guard and Granville following closely behind.
I soon understood why Judge Complin visited our dismal dungeon so often. I had not realized it (for I had been carried to my awful place of imprisonment while yet unconscious), but the Shrewsfield prison was adjacent to the courthouse. The Judge’s own office, though very close to the cells, resided in a kind of purgatorium that conjoined the jailhouse with the court of justice. We passed out of the windowless corridors of the jail and into the long airy avenue of a high-ceilinged gallery, lined with tall windows covered in hanging curtains of red cloth. The sun had still not yet risen, but the faint pallid glow of the coming dawn feebly strove to shine past the heavy draperies, illuminating our echoing way.
After climbing a set of winding stairs, we came to a balcony that overlooked the main foyer of the court of justice. At that early hour it was entirely empty, save for an immense granite statue of Justice herself which stood in the center of that chamber and rose to nearly touch the ceiling that roofed both the lower floor and the floor upon which we stood. A blindfold covered her eyes and her flowing hair cascaded down her shoulders as though buffeted by the winds of corruption, while her lips curved in a peculiar fashion that could have been either a smile or a moue of pity. Here, Judge Complin paused as though to allow Granville and myself an opportunity to observe the symbol of our judgement. Granville’s face was pale as he gazed upon that cold figure. I cannot know what my own expression was as I looked at that imposing eidolon, but I felt Complin draw me closer and whisper, “Do you feel yourself in her hands?”
And I, with a sigh of seeming resignation, replied, “No, my lord.”
He gave my shoulders a strong, bracing squeeze that might have been affectionate, but felt to my soul like the crushing embrace of a kestrel’s preying talons. But I thought of my mistress’s advice and the faltering look that had shadowed his visage earlier and I took heart. Oh, he felt my sigh – but he did not see my smile!
© 2015 by Colin Harker. All rights reserved.