“There’s no such thing as that we beauty call,
It is mere cozenage all;
For though some, long ago,
Liked certain colors mingled so and so,
That doth not tie me now from choosing new;
If I a fancy take
To black and blue,
That fancy doth it beauty make.”
— SIR JOHN SUCKLING
O, what a Hall of Pandemonium was that courtroom! As we entered, the gathered townsfolk began to clamor around us, some of them reaching to grasp my clothing and press me with questions – but when they saw who held me by the shoulder, they fell back with looks of unutterable awe and fearful respect. I confess that I shrank from that look more than I had from their grasping hands – for in it I read my doom. It was a look of momentary pity that, on the face of that otherwise ravenous mob, made me fear for myself in spite of the momentary hope that I had sustained before.
Judge Complin beckoned to a nearby guard and, putting me into his hands, said, “I would have you restrain and suspend him.”
“This wretch?” he asked with a contemptuous laugh. “He is already fainting in my arms like a maid!”
“Yes,” the Judge said softly. “But he is to be made an example of.”
I had not the strength to even protest whatever was to be done to me. I could only sigh aloud, though my sigh was swallowed by the roar of the mob around us. I was then dragged before an iron cage that stood in the center of the courtroom and, as I stood before it, the guard fettered my wrists in irons and forced a leather gag into my mouth – as though I would have bothered to protest my treatment! – as though I would have been fool enough to imagine that any plea that I voiced would have fallen on a sympathetic ear! But it was, of course, all a part of the spectacle. All of these indignities were heaped upon me in as brutal and coarse a manner as possible, in spite of my utter lack of resistance, and I imagined that the guard had been charged by Complin to treat me in as outrageous a fashion as possible in order to provoke me so that he might have an opportunity to justify his cruelties. Alas, my arch-tormentor little guessed my capacity to endure with patience the most subtle and refined persecutions.
At last, after looking me over with a final, insulting eye, the guard delivered me into the iron cage, making fast its grated door. This cage was then lifted aloft so that I hung suspended above the courtroom, choked and restrained: the most helpless and pitiable object, perhaps, in that awful place. Complin, who had taken his seat in his judge’s chair, let his eye run over me for a long moment before rising and addressing the gathered throng and the murmuring jury.
“Gentlemen,” his voice was low, but a hush immediately followed. “My fellow lords and peers. It is our purpose today to judge a man who has been charged with a crime, the nature of which will perhaps color your opinion of him before you have even heard his defense. Yet I would call your attention to a creature that lies even lower than the unfortunate whom we must judge today.” He did not even gesture towards me; he merely looked in my direction and, as one man, every other eye in that courtroom was raised to look upon me. “The young man who hangs above us and who will soon feel our justice…” he paused, and then in a voice that bespoke a controlled passion continued, “This young man – this young servant – represents a certain criminal strain that imperils us. You have perhaps heard of the Revolution that seethes in France – ” He was momentarily interrupted by wrathful murmurs of acknowledgment. “You have perhaps heard of what they do to their lords in that now-lawless land. Now I confess – have I not a heart? – that this young man is comely and pitiable. I confess – have I not a conscience? – that his reformation rather than his destruction would be most assuredly preferable. But gentlemen, we must judge as lords, not merely as men. It is sacrifices such as this that may secure our lawful hold.”
I need not have wondered what sort of sacrifice he demanded – his glittering eye as he returned my gaze spoke all. O, what a heart! I thought. What a conscience!
A broken sigh interrupted the Judge’s eloquence – that eloquence that I knew would damn me. I was too involved in my own anguish to realize that the sigh belonged to none other than myself, but as I looked down at the sea of townsfolk, I saw a face that made my heart almost cease to beat. It was that of my mistress.
The world was a chaos. The roof of that infernal place seemed to spin, my senses felt suddenly light and drunk, and the blood pounding in my ears was like the anguished roar of a subterranean sea. I did not know that I swooned. I only knew that one moment I looked into the eyes of my mistress – those eyes so full of an infinite pity, an infinite regret – and then I fell into the arms of a brutal, caressing darkness.
When I awoke, I felt that I was lying upon the low bed in my dungeon cell. A warm damp cloth was held to my brow by a gentle, firm hand and I heard the unmistakable voice of my mistress, who I sensed was seated by me: “How brutally you treated him. Those restraints were never necessary.”
“Would you have preferred that I use a bridle?” The ironic reply was Judge Complin’s.
“Ah, but that was by my hand.” She stroked my cheek with the damp rag.
“Yes,” Complin said. “When he was in your hands. He is in another’s hands now.”
“Who else’s, madam? And do not expect me to believe that you felt merely pity for him this morning. Your look when he swooned was unmistakable.”
Neither of them knew that I had awakened, for I kept my eyes closed. But she took my hand and kissing it said, “You have surely made him suffer for his crime.”
“Oh, I have made him suffer,” said the Judge. “But for his crime? Alas, no – for my pleasure.”
I thought I heard a smile in my mistress’s voice as she replied, “You forget yourself, my lord. Those sorts of words perhaps terrify this poor creature, but I am your equal and have already resolved that he shall suffer but shall not hang.”
“I do not forget,” said Complin. “I merely dispute.”
“On what grounds shall he be hung? For attempting to steal my silver?”
“Men have been hanged for much less, madam.”
“By your bloody ruling. We, your peers, know you as a gentleman, but you are a very Devil when you sit in court, are you not?”
“Does it surprise you, madam? I would have thought that you, of all people, would have understood the peculiarities of individual taste. Surely you weighed my reputation before choosing to put him under my power.”
“I did – but I thought you would have more respect for my own wishes in this matter.”
“Of course, madam, but you must respect that your creature is in my domain now.”
“And that he has provoked you?”
“Ah, what provocation!”
“I will confess,” my mistress said, after a pause. “That you possess a certain…finesse. The way that he appeared, suspended over the courtroom – your denouncement of him – why, you were a very Shakespeare of suffering in your management of this morning’s little piece of theatre. What heart could not have been moved with horror and pity at such a sight?”
Their mingled laughter made the very soul within me shudder. I felt my mistress rise and then the twitching brush of something against my face, my lips, something stiff that smelt of leather. I could not resist – the sensation was so familiar – I kissed the riding crop as though it were her own imperious hand.
“Come back to me,” she murmured.
I shall, my fated soul whispered. Oh, I shall!
© 2015 by Colin Harker. All rights reserved.