I know he scorns me–and I feel, I hate him–
Yet there is in him that which makes me tremble!
— COLERIDGE & SOUTHEY, The Fall of Robespierre
Complin unlocked the door of a chamber and led me in, shutting and bolting the door behind us. He then took up an iron poker and went to stir the dying embers of the hearth, provoking the flames to leap and catch, to cast a bright, lurid gleam. But it was a vast chamber, an immense study with a ceiling as high as a church’s sanctuary and rows and rows of books and treatises lining the walls, and there was very little that even a hearth as wide as Leviathan’s maw could do to illumine it. A thousand candles could not have driven back that Stygian darkness.
“You are a great reader of poetry, are you not?” the Judge asked as he saw my wandering gaze. “I believe you possess a copy of Mr. Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.”
“How did you know that, my lord?”
“I felt something in your pocket when I carried you back to your cell after you swooned. You are not the only soul guilty of curiosity, young man.”
“You carried me back?”
“Of course. I am a servant of the people, after all, am I not?”
“Whereupon you searched me?”
“Naturally. What if you had hidden upon your person some item of contraband or some deadly weapon?”
“Was my mistress present while you took these liberties?”
“Not at all. She came some little while later, to see how you fared. And lest you feel yourself ill-used, consider this: that no liberties can be taken where there is no liberty left to take. You are wholly without liberty.”
“Yes, I feel that very keenly, my lord,” I replied, not troubling to hide the annoyance that I felt. My gratitude towards him had worn off somewhat – the rush of relief that I had felt before when he had warded me from the cruel sporting of those awful, masked men had now dissipated and was now replaced with a remembrance that he was, after all, the lord of those wolves and that he commanded them not with the authority of an angel but with that of a demon. His protective influence was not provoked by human charity but by the promptings of an obscure, jealous tyranny.
“I am gratified to hear that,” he replied, a trifle coldly. “I feared that perhaps it was because you had forgotten your place that you dared once again to hazard my wrath.”
Bewildered, I said, “What do you mean? I have done nothing!”
“Before you sink still lower in my estimation,” Complin continued. “Keep in mind that it is in my power to cast you out of this chamber and leave you at the mercy of my guests. I believe that you met one of my friends already, the one who holds such a fascination with needles. Surely it would be a wonderful thing to see you amuse him for an evening. You shall, I promise you, if you persist in treating me falsely.”
“My Lord, I swear by my life that I cannot guess what it is that you accuse me. If I have dealt falsely with you, then it was out of ignorance, not malice. Torture me for your entertainment if it amuses you – I know that you inevitably will anyway – but do so knowing that you are torturing an innocent who has only dealt honorably with you. Indeed, I am sure that will only serve to pique your amusement still further.”
Complin let out an exasperated sigh. “O, cease with your sauce and speak plainly to me as a man and not as the heroine of some sentimental novel. Have you or have you not been providing Glanville with advice on how best to engage the jury’s sympathies, thus securing a favorable verdict? And before you attempt to play the part of the suffering fair again, a plain yes or no will suffice. I am no Lovelace, bantering back and forth with my prey for an eternity.”
I could not help but disagree with the Judge’s last claim, considering how long he had already kept me waiting for my own trial and fate, but did not think it prudent to contradict him in his present mood. Indeed, the frank look in his eye as he awaited my answer made me blush in spite of my own sense of innocence.
Seeing the color rise to my cheeks, his eyes instantly flashed with triumph. “Ha! I should have suspected long before. Granville could never have been clever enough to teach himself the subtle arts of engaging sympathy – no, he would have required the advice of a creature whose very station had taught him those arts. Is that not so, servant boy?”
He spoke with a kind of caustic humor, but I could see by the cold, fixed look in his eyes that he was utterly unamused.
“Sir,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “If my talents are as subtle as you say, then how have I not moved you?”
“You know the answer to that already,” Complin replied. “In respect to you, I am beyond alteration. The star that hangs over me is fixed – as is yours. And the moment that our paths crossed, my heaven overshadowed yours.”
I was about to reply, but before I could, he caught me by the throat, his fingers pressing in such a way that my breathing came thinly and my ears rang. He then drew me closer, close enough so that his breath warmed my face, saying, “If your advice proves to be Granville’s salvation, you shall suffer as you have never suffered before. Pray, boy – pray for his hanging. Your poor flesh depends on it.”
“No,” I whispered. “Never. Not even if it damns me will I obey that monstrous command.”
His face went pale and bloodless at my reply, though he kept his passion firmly in check. His voice horribly measured, he said, “Oh, you shall be damned – for that.” As his grasp about my throat tightened, I sensed that his attention began to move away from Granville towards some other object.
“You speak with courage,” he continued softly, “but your heart belies you. I feel it beating beneath my hand with more terror than any heart that I have ever felt – and I have felt many. Can it be that I truly inspire such fear in you?”
The strangling hold that he had upon me overwhelmed me with a sense of lightheadedness; occasionally he would lessen the pressure of his fingers, so that I could gasp for breath. Then he would tighten his hold about my throat again, forcing me to struggle again for breath before allowing me to breathe in his gloating breath. In this way, I could barely breathe but at his command.
“I…am not afraid…anymore,” I managed. “ I know that I shall die…defying you, though you be Satan himself.”
I hoped as I spoke that my eyes flashed with the resolve with which I spoke; I hoped that I did not betray the dreadful awe that I felt. Whatever the look upon my face, the Judge’s gaze seemed to harden with an awful resolve, while his lips twitched with a kind of agitated pleasure, as though my defiance mingled with my utter helplessness provoked a subtle rapture in him.
“Let us put your fear to the test then,” he said. “Let your heart remain steady while I tell you what I shall do to you if Granville is released. But, for our experiment, you must first be calmed, for your heart is already racing.” He loosened his grasp on me, giving me a chance to regain my breath and for my heart to slow, letting me lean against his shoulder (for I could barely stand) and bracing me with his arm – an odd mixture of brutality and affection that made me feel like a shivering schoolboy who, after a whipping, is comforted by the harsh master who had only a moment ago harshly reprimanded him.
My nerves were still so taut from the events of the last hour that at first I endured this sudden change with no alteration. But presently, in spite of myself, I felt a strange peace come over me – there was, after all, only one being at present whom I feared and who held my fate in his hands, and that being was holding me now with the care of a mother, his only design now to comfort me, the rise and fall of his breath now rocking me almost to unconsciousness. Yet as I closed my eyes, I remembered that awful dream that I had had of him many nights ago – I imagined that I heard his voice even now, whispering in my ear, “I shall raise you up…” – I thought that I felt his hand at the back of my neck, first as a caress, then as a strangling grasp –
“Have you fallen asleep?” the Judge’s true voice startled me awake from my uneasy trance. He released me from his embrace, now holding me by the shoulders so that he could better study my face. “Truly you confound me – one moment, you are utterly terrified by me, the next you are asleep in my arms.” He snapped his fingers before my dazzled, bewildered eyes, saying, “Come, young man, you must recover your senses before your nerves can be tested. Here, drink this.”
He poured out a glass of claret and handed it to me. Seeing my hesitation, he asked with a laugh, “Do you fear that I’ve poisoned it?”
“Well, my lord…”
He took the glass from me and drank deeply from it before putting it in my hand again. “Now will you drink?”
I drank the glass to the dregs, grateful for the warmth that the spirit lent me.
“Now let us begin,” he said, taking me by the wrist, his fingers at my pulse, his grasp strong as iron. Already, as his gaze fixed me, I could feel my betraying heart begin to quicken. He smiled a little at this, but continued gravely, “If Granville does not hang, my man shall come to your cell and drag you here, as he did tonight. But you shall not be taken into the warmth of my study. No, you shall be dragged out to my stables.” He let these words sink in while I wondered uneasily how he could have known of my inordinate fear of stables. Had my mistress betrayed my secret? The Judge continued, “One of my stallions shall be trotted out and you shall be trussed up and then tethered to the end of one of his hooves. And then, my fine creature, you shall be dragged along behind him after I have my ostlers whip him to a frothing gallop.” He paused to stroke my cheek, as though already anticipating the flaying it would receive. “Oh, it will not kill you – but it will certainly lay you raw.”
My heart was beating so rapidly that even I could feel it throbbing in my temple. My attempts to keep a composed look were utterly ineffectual; I knew that my horror was laid bare before my tormentor’s lapping gaze. I sank to my knees, a horrible dizziness beginning to darken my vision.
“Come, come,” he said. “Granville may hang after all.”
“I am lost,” I murmured, half-mad in my abjection. “Utterly lost.”
Complin observed me for a long moment, then hauled me briskly to my feet and, supporting me on his arm, poured out another glass of claret. “For the time being,” he said. “Why don’t you lose yourself in a more pleasant fashion?”
I took the glass listlessly. “My Lord,” I said. “If there is any way that I can alter your – ”
He put a finger to my lips. “Let us not,” he said, a merry but awful light twinkling in his eye. “Retread that well-worn path again.”