“For my part,
The rack, the gallows, and the torturing wheel,
Shall be but sound sleeps to me: here’s my rest.”
— WEBSTER, The White Devil
I dreamt of Complin often during the intervening days in which Granville was tried. When I was not dreaming, I thought of my persecutor with the intense devotion with which more fortunate souls think of their fair ladies or sweet children. Again and again, the question revolved in my brain – what must I do to be saved? Sometimes I imagined that if I but understood him, that I would be redeemed. I read his every look and every gesture; I fixed them all as eerie codes and combinations of the heart, existing in a universe of his own order and making – a world in which laws were not the issues of justice but the ministers of some terrible love.
Granville’s mood for the first several weeks of his trial was the most tranquil that I had ever seen in him. He felt certain that the jury would see his innocence, with an assurance that bewildered me a little – though I recalled Complin’s eerie promise to him that Granville had nothing to fear so long as he remained obedient. I still was not altogether certain as to what crime Granville was accused of committing, nor who his accuser was, for I had swooned before the charge against him had been read.
When I told Granville of my ignorance, he looked at me with tender concern, asking, “Why did you faint, my poor friend?”
“I am afraid that the Judge’s cruelty affected me strongly,” I said, not wishing to introduce my mistress into the conversation.
He nodded gravely. “I still do not fully understand his implacability in relation to you. But if it is any consolation, you missed very little during that time. Moreover, I shall tell you myself with what crime I am charged: I am accused, falsely, of murdering my wife. The truth is that whilst we were hunting together in the forest outside my estate, I took aim at a fox and – curse my unsteady hand! – laid low my lady. I rode her to a physician as quickly as I could, but alas it was too late.”
As he spoke, his face grew grey with grief and he turned away from even my sympathetic looks, as though too ashamed to bear my pity.
The night before Granville’s final hearing, we were both awakened by the approach of two guards. Our cell was unlocked and I was dragged to my feet, still half-asleep.
“Am I to be tried?” I asked, trembling. The guard who held me (and whom I recognized as the man who had trussed me up and suspended me in the courtroom’s iron cage) returned my question with an odd look of brutal compassion.
“Tried, yes,” he replied, “but not in the manner that you mean.”
He made no further answer to my questions, instead turning me about and trussing my wrists with a thick cord. He then unraveled a length of black silk and blindfolded me about the head with it. What next? I wondered morosely.
“If you’re a good boy and do as you’re told, then we won’t have any need of a gag, will we?” he asked.
“Then come along.”
I was led down innumerable hallways until, at last, I heard the opening of a door and felt the sudden cool rush of wind upon my face. I could hear as well the pawing of nearby horses and knew then that, for the first time in many months, I was no longer a prisoner of those grey walls.
Tears sprang to my eyes, but I did not have the time to indulge silently in melancholic relief. I felt my captor put me into the care of a different man and I heard the creak of a saddle; then I felt myself lifted onto the back of the horse as well.
Perhaps sensing my bewildered fear, the guard told me: “Do not fear that I will let you fall – if you broke your neck tonight, my master would have me hung.”
With this peculiar reassurance and his hand firmly about me, we rode into the night. Nor was it long before we at last drew to a halt and I was lifted down from the saddle onto firm ground again. The night wind still blew gustily, but now I noticed that it carried the scent of roses upon it and, in spite of my terror, the fragrance refreshed me.
As I was marched forward, I heard my captor fumble in his pocket and I caught the brass jangle of keys. He then unlocked a door and we stepped inside.
As soon as we entered, he unraveled the silken kerchief that had blinded me and I blinked in the dim candlelight. I saw that we stood in a hallway foyer and that four men were gathered in a group at the end of the hallway, conversing in soft, indistinct tones. They were dressed peculiarly in robes of black and all wore either ebony, birdlike masks or veils of thick gauze. When they caught sight of my captor and myself, they fell silent, save for one who asked us what our business was.
“My business here is done,” replied my captor. “I was ordered to deliver this young man to the master of his house. Is the servant Macpherson here?”
Someone pulled a cord and a bell rang somewhere in the deep interior of whatever place it was – manor? castle? – to which I had been spirited. Presently, an ancient man with a greying beard entered, calling out, “More company, is it?”
“Aye, Macpherson, but a different sort,” my captor replied good-humoredly. “Is your master here?”
“He has not yet returned, but when he does, I shall let him know that you have brought this young man here.”
My captor released me and, with a bow, departed – leaving me in the care of that ancient servant and those four awful, black-robed beings.
Macpherson took me by the shoulder and, addressing those beings, said: “My lords, excuse me for a moment while I take our young guest to a securer chamber.”
“Must you deprive us so quickly?” asked one of the figures, his voice deep and rich; the voice of an orator. “We would speak with this charming creature, if he will give us the pleasure of his company.”
It had been so long since I had been addressed in such a gentle and humane fashion that I almost wept with relief.
“You are a prisoner of Complin’s?” the man asked as Macpherson drew me closer to the gathering.
“I am a prisoner of the law, my lord,” I replied. “Though I am to be judged by Complin. Do you know him?”
The masked man and his comrades exchanged glances. “We are all guests of Complin,” he replied, and I fancied that I heard a smile behind the reply.
“But you look famished,” he continued. “Do they feed you where you are imprisoned?”
“Only a crust of bread and some water, sir,” I said.
“Come here,” he beckoned me to his side.
Though hesitant, I obeyed and drew still closer to those figures in robed black. My inquisitor put his hand on my arm and while doing so, reached into an inner pocket and drew out what appeared to be a sweetmeat. I confess that it had been so long since I had eaten anything save bread that my mouth instantly began to water.
“But, my lord, my hands are tied,” I said helplessly.
“You do not require your hands for this,” he replied.
I looked at his cupped hand and then at Macpherson and the rest of the company. I was, of course, unable to discern the visages of those masked and veiled figures, but I could see that Macpherson was putting his hand to the hilt of a cudgel that he kept stowed in his belt. It was my privilege, I saw, to choose between entertaining them with my obedience or entertaining them with my suffering.
I bent my head and, like a bird, put my lips to his gloved hand and accepted the proffered meat. It was venison soaked in cognac and, though I blushed at my own abjection, I could not help but own to myself that I had tasted nothing so fine since my imprisonment. Indeed, my palate had been so deadened by the bland, coarse food that I had been given for the last month, that I felt heady after tasting the richness of this slight repast. After I had swallowed this delicacy, I managed to bow my thanks to the masked man.
“How courtly you are, for a prisoner of the law,” he remarked, a note of pleasure in his voice. “Would you enjoy another?”
“Yes, my lord,” I said. “But with my hands untied.”
“Impossible. But observe this.” He produced something sharp and glittering from his pocket: a needle. “Macpherson, blindfold the young gentleman.”
As though he had been anticipating this particular order, the servant immediately unfolded his kerchief and wrapped it about my head. Presently, I heard the masked man say, “You may unblind him now.”
I saw that now he held in his gloved hand two separate sweetmeats. “One of these,” he said, “is lanced with the needle that you saw. The other is a harmless delicacy. I require you to choose one of them—”
“My lord, have mercy!” I pleaded.
“—or both shall be forced down your throat. The choice is yours.”
“But – but why? I have done you no harm.”
“And I am taking no vengeance on you.”
“Then what is this?”
“A pastime. Nothing more. Macpherson, will you do your office?”
The ancient serving-man took me by the arm and drew me closer to the cupped offerings which now filled me with nothing but horror.
“I cannot choose!” I cried.
“Then, Macpherson, you know what you must do,” the masked man said breathlessly.
Macpherson grasped me by the hair and forced me to kneel before my persecutor. I smelled the scent of the venison and I thought of the glint of the needle. I imagined the rich taste of the meat and then the warm flood of my own blood and I sickened at the vision. As these lurid thoughts convulsed my mind, I heard a door open at my back. Filled with a desperate strength, I broke free from my captor and stumbled in the direction of that sound, rushing into the familiar grasp of Judge Complin himself.
It must have been evident to Complin that his coming had fortuitously rescued me from some hideous trial, for as he put a shielding arm around me, I heard him say in a tone half-jesting, half-seething: “What is the meaning of this folly whilst I am away, gentlemen? Do you treat my house as a gaming tavern?”
“Forgive me, my lord,” my former persecutor replied in an apologetic tone. “I meant no disrespect. Indeed, it was your history of the prisoner that made me curious to put him to the test.”
“I accept your flattery,” Complin said, with a smiling nod. “And now, if you will but lend me the untainted meat?”
The masked man relinquished it to him with a bow and Complin held the delicacy to my lips.
“I am in your debt,” I whispered. “You saved me from an awful fate.”
He looked down at me, his eyes twinkling with sympathetic amusement. “You speak like a lamb, but you cannot be as naïve as you appear. You know very well that you are only saved so that you may be damned.”
Oh, most wretched of ironies! – that though the Judge spoke the truth, my circumstances were so deplorable that I could not help but feel only comfort at that moment in his embrace, though it was as tender as the ravening grasp of a tiger.
To be continued…