“Who is the God of the dead? where doth he make his dwelling? what sacrifices are acceptable unto him? for I have offered, but have not been received; I have prayed, and have not been heard; and how can I be afflicted more than I already am?”
— COLERIDGE, The Wanderings of Cain
The next morning, I awoke to find myself once again in my cold prison cell. Something tickled my chin – a thin sheet of paper tucked within my shirt. I snatched it up and traced the lines in the feeble light of my prison:
My dear Alan:–
I must apologize for not bidding you farewell in person, but I fear that my wine quite exhausted you and it was impossible to draw a word from you after two o’ clock in the morning. I confess that you are just as charming a companion when inebriated as you are in your right senses. I was sensibly warmed by the compliments that you so generously paid me and though I know that you drank deeply of my wine, I could not help but feel myself flattered and enamored nonetheless, particularly with the surprising ease of your manner with me as you delivered these amiable courtesies, with the spirit of Bacchus inspiring your young tongue with an eloquence that I would not, I confess, have believed it capable of before. If this is to be my reward for terrifying you within an inch of your life, then I must put you to the test more often.
Respecting your fate: you shall know if you must be tormented in my stables or not, depending on Granville’s verdict. Pray, I urge you, for his doom. You do not realize it now, but you have reason to pray thusly – beyond an immediate need to escape my vengeance.
~ John Complin ~
I read and reread these lines, alternately blushing and paling with embarrassment and anxiety. I could not imagine what the Judge meant when he referred to the ‘compliments’ that I had paid him and I felt a rush of consternation as I wondered what foolishness I might have drunkenly uttered that would have charmed a being with such depraved tastes. My mind raced with a thousand propositions, each more humiliating than the last. I might, in the passion of despair, have called him awful, supreme, sublime, irresistible as Lady Fortune, portraying myself as utterly helpless before his inexorable injustice, slowly building him up and enlarging him into something nearly Dantean – nay Shakespearean – nay Miltonic in its immense and towering stature, capabilities, and capacities. In such a wild state, I might have even jested about my gruesome fate upon the scaffold and promised him that if I could not be saved, then I would at least make a martyr worthy of the remembrance of a tyrant as discerning as he. Such unthinking statements, though all very well and good and seemingly heroic, could only have coaxed him into a keener and more frenzied desire for my undoing.
His last remark was troubling as well. What additional reason could I have for wishing Granville’s destruction? I could not help but feel that here the Judge was cruelly tormenting me with vague suspicions and I uneasily did my best to dismiss this insinuation. As it was, Granville was absent from my cell, leading me to believe that his trial was already underway.
I collapsed again upon my pillow and soon fell asleep again, my brain too surcharged with emotion to sustain itself any longer. I was awakened by the sound of rustling keys and started up to see the same guard who had taken me to Complin’s mansion the night before. He must have seen my look of horror, for he said, “No, I have not come to take you away yet – but I have come to take you to the courtroom, for His Lordship wishes you to be present for the final verdict.”
As I was led out, I said, “Sir, I do not know how you became one of Complin’s creatures, but surely if you told some other Lord Justice of his cruelties, you could expose him for what he is. You see what he is doing to me, do you not? That I am being tried beyond what the law requires?”
“If it were as simple as that,” the guard murmured under his breath. “Then perhaps I would help you. But you cannot imagine the enormity of what you are entangled in – though you caught a glimpse of it the other night in the Judge’s house, when you saw the strange company that he keeps. If I were to expose the Judge, as you suggest, the act would ease my conscience but be effectively meaningless: it would result neither in his disgrace nor in your salvation. You would only find me standing next to you upon the scaffold as well.”
“Good God,” I said. “Is he truly so powerful that even an honest man cannot stand against him? What recourse do I have, if he can perform his crimes so openly?”
“I can only say that I would not stand in your shoes for all the gold in Spain,” the guard merely replied.
Though the evening was hardly young, the courtroom was brimming with townsfolk, all eager to watch the outcome of Granville’s trial. I was jostled past them, but I was led this time not to that awful cage in the center of the room, but instead to Complin himself who gestured to a rude chair set at a lower level beside his own chair of office. As I took my seat, Complin put his hand upon my shoulder and nodded towards the scene before us. I followed his gaze and could not hold back an intake of breath at the prospect.
I saw before me a vast, circular courtroom, its high arched windows reflecting only moonlight, and its shadowed interior illumined by the hanging, iron cressets that depend from its rafters. A murmur of hushed voices, like the surge of an ocean, filled that chamber and when a troop of guards entered the room to conduct Granville to the dock, a cold draft followed them, bowing and flickering the manifold candles and lanterns in that place. The shadows of wind-blown tree branches moved like twisting limbs outside those courtroom windows; I watched them and such was my sense of leaden despair and dread that I would have preferred to find myself driven by that savage wind, homeless and moneyless without a friend in the world, than in my present condition in that theatre of judgment. At least then, I could have directed my own steps and chosen my own path of destruction.
Complin took his seat and signaled for silence with the rap of his hammer. Then, turning to the jury, he spoke to them in the same manner that he had assumed the last time that I had heard him speak in court, when he had urged his audience to condemn me. It was a low voice, affectionate but grave, coaxing without pleading, soft but also brutally firm – a caress that wrapped its hearers in its warm coils so that they could not even feel when they were suffocating beneath it. It was, I imagined, the voice of Shakespeare’s Richard III wooing Lady Anne over the coffin of her murdered husband, pouring that sweet poison that overcomes all repulsion and makes the hearer favor his own destruction and forsake his own cause for the sake of that tongue.
As I listened in gloomy thought, I heard Complin tell them: “Tonight, my friends, we decide upon Lord Granville’s fate. You have heard the testimonies made against him by those who were witness as he shot his lady down. You have also heard his own testimony and his tearful insistence that what happened was an unfortunate accident. You must weigh all of these considerations in your heart while making your decision. But tell me, my friends – ” here he leaned forward, his shadow falling athwart the floor of the courtroom – “were those tears for his lady, or for his own throat as he thought of the gallows? Tell me, would not the thought of the noose around one’s neck cause tears to spill as freely, if not more freely, than the thought of a dead wife? I confess that the sight of the scaffold has often moved me considerably,” here he glanced down at me and granted me a faint smile perceptible only to myself, “and I would venture to guess that it has done the same to every man, woman, and child in this house.”
All the members of the jury nodded gravely, but Granville, horror-stricken at what he was hearing, suddenly shouted: “And what of your promise to me, my lord? Your promise that I would meet clemency at your hands? Is your word so light and are your oaths so meaningless?”
Complin looked at him with an expression of faint surprise and distaste. “You would do well, Lord Granville, to consult the jury’s mercy rather than conjure accusations out of thin air.”
“But he speaks the truth!” I cried, standing. “I saw Judge Complin speak to Granville with my own eyes, for we two shared the same cell. And I heard the Judge promise Granville mercy, as clearly as I have heard him now condemn him!”
There was a murmur of shocked surprise at my outburst and I saw Complin glance down at me with a look of such passionate ferocity that I felt close to losing my senses. But I had gone too far to shrink from the precipice. As Complin signaled for me to be taken, I shouted, “Ask him if what I say is not true. See if he dares to deny the truth twice!”
Complin spoke above both me and the murmur of the crowd: “Nay, guard, do not take him away – bring him to me. It would be unjust to send this boy away without giving his claims due consideration. Is that not so, my friends?”
The jury gave their murmured assent to this proposal. The guard who had hauled me to my feet now dragged me to Complin who took me by the arm with a roughness that I doubted anyone noticed but myself and stood me before him so that the jury and those gathered could see the two of us together.
“Think carefully before you speak again,” he whispered to me. “You believe that you have nothing to lose, but you have so very much to lose and to suffer if you disobey me.”
“You can only destroy my body – not my soul!” I whispered back furiously.
His eyes flashed, but there was no time for him to reply to my impudence. Already, the jury of seated lords were murmuring at the oddness of our behavior. Complin turned me about again to face them and inquired, loudly enough so that all gathered could hear, “Young man, what is your name and what are you doing here?”
“My name is Alan Williams,” I replied. “I am a prisoner of the law awaiting trial. I was brought here by your guard to observe this trial, though for what purpose I know not, saving that it was the peculiar pleasure of your lordship.”
“And how old are you, Alan?”
I returned the inquiring gazes of those ancient faces with a faint blush and replied, “Twenty-two years old, my lord.”
“Such a tender age!” Complin smiled. “And what have you been accused of, Alan?”
I hesitated and then replied, “Of stealing silver.”
“Louder, Alan – I’m not certain that all the members of the jury caught your words.”
“I stole silver belonging to my mistress, my lord.”
There were chuckles and a few murmurs of disapprobation at this.
“Alan, would you not imagine that perhaps this crime of yours signals a certain disregard and disrespect for authority?”
“Sir, I – ”
“Only answer the question, young man.” Here he gave me a hard pinch, which I imagine that he had been aching to do for some time. I bit my lip and replied:
“I suppose it could be construed that way, though my motives were far from disrespectful.”
“Ah, then you were respectfully making away with your mistress’s silver, is that it?”
The jury and many of the gathered townsfolk laughed aloud at this. I was losing face rapidly and I had to do something to regain my credit, or my boldness would all go to naught.
“But the jailer – ” I gestured to the guard who had ushered me in. “He was there as well! He witnessed it all!”
But the guard shook his head vehemently and said, “Never once have I seen Judge Complin set foot in the prisons. What reason would a gentleman have to be there?” After a pause, he added, “Moreover, Mr. Williams does not share his quarters with Lord Glanville. That, too, is a bold-faced lie.”
The audience was, by this time, thoroughly entertained by our conversation. The Judge had emerged with a character of tolerance and humor while I had come off as a lying fool. There was no need even for my dismissal. Complin allowed me to resume my place (though not before giving me another brutal, amused look that promised some future chastisement) and the trial was resumed. Had we lived in an earlier, less fastidious period, I had no doubt that Complin would have willingly had me pilloried to some Roman column and flogged before them all for my insolence. As it was, there were at least the laws of modern etiquette that restrained him still, and he was forced to bide his time. There was that mercy at least to be thankful for.
I waited listlessly for the verdict though I already knew what it would be. When one of the jurors said that they had reached a decision, I barely registered the word when he proclaimed that “the jury and this court finds Lord Glanville innocent of any and all offense.”
When the import of these words finally reached me, I was so thunderstruck that all I could do was gaze in disbelieving rapture at Glanville, whose face betrayed the same astonishment. Only Complin managed to restrain whatever emotions he felt at this judgment – which was remarkable, considering that his disappointment must have equaled our almost unbearable transport.
“If this is truly the will of the jury,” he said gravely. “Then Lord Granville, I hereby proclaim you a free man. You are released from our power and free to return to your home.” As the jury and townsfolk resumed their murmur of curious talk, Complin grasped me by the shoulder, saying, “And you – ” For a moment, he could barely speak, so great was his convulsive passion, “You shall satisfy me in his place.”
“Do whatever you wish,” I said breathlessly, for my last vestige of courage was almost exhausted and I could barely stand before him. “Outrage earth and heaven, if you dare!”
“You would enjoy that, wouldn’t you?” he said softly, his lips now bloodless. “You would like to see me stain you with some atrocity. Why else do you provoke me beyond endurance?”
He would have continued, had a violent interruption not arrested both of us from our quarrel. It was the thundercrack of a musket, shattering one of the courthouse windows. As the people within screamed in terror, a voice from outside shouted:
“Bring to us the corrupt judge and the jury! Bring to us those men with blood upon their hands so that we can teach them what true justice is!”
I glanced at Complin. He passed a hand over his face with a weary sigh. “Well, this promises to be a long evening.”
To be continued…